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Selfless housing counselor praised for outstanding community service

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image Walter Walker Jr. (left) was completely surprised by presentation of the 2012 Dorothy Duke Community Service Award Saturday. Melody Jameson Photo

There are a rare few who are legends in their own time...

By MELODY JAMESON

RUSKIN – Some folks are legends in their own minds, rarely losing the opportunity to say so.

Then there are a rare few who are legends in their own time. And everyone but them knows it.

Walter Walker Jr. is one of the latter. Hundreds of his grateful clients, his appreciative fans, his respectful colleagues said so, publicly, here, last weekend.

This week, Walker, a housing counselor at the non-profit Housing and Education Alliance (HEA) in Tampa, was back at his desk focused on helping first time homebuyers, insisting “I’m really a shy and withdrawn person.”

There’s a plaque on his wall, though, that says differently. It’s the 2012 Dorothy Duke Award for Outstanding Community Service recognizing Walker’s dedication to homebuyer education. On it, in plain and simple English, are forever engraved the words: “Walter Walker, you are a Legend in Hillsborough County.”

Walker, says Earl Pfeiffer, executive director of Florida Home Partnership, the local developer of several affordable housing communities, is an extremely competent housing counselor who relates well to people, talks anyone’s language and genuinely cares about homebuyers before and after their purchases. Pfeiffer knows because Walker has taught hundreds of FHP home buyers the intricacies and responsibilities of home ownership.

But, the depth and intensity of Walker’s dedication goes way above and beyond, Pfeiffer relates. If proof were needed, it came when HEA lost a substantial portion of its funding a while back. Disappearance of the money meant one thing immediately: layoff of personnel. When the sad announcement was made to the HEA staff though, Pfeiffer recalls, Walker declined to leave, saying that if it was all the same to everyone, he’d stay in place, doing the job, without pay. Other staffers followed his lead, making the same commitment. The dry spell lasted for weeks, Pfeiffer notes. However, together, inspired by Walker, they weathered the fiscal storm. The agency continued delivering its multiple, invaluable services.

None of this, naturally, was mentioned by the counselor as Walker responded to questions from The Observer this week. Instead, he spoke of the important broad spectrum impacts of home ownership; the social and economic and personal stability that exists when people have legal possession of and responsibility for their own homes. “Home,” he said, “is a place to retreat, a place where everyone feels comfortable, even a place to leave to children.” And it’s something everyone needs, he suggested.

As a housing counselor, Walker deals with another spectrum of related subject areas. His role, he said, primarily is teaching home buyer education. That includes instructing them about financial capability, responsible use of credit, getting established in the marketplace. Then, there are the lessons to be learned about navigating the home purchase process and getting a handle on the meanings of myriad closing documents. And, sometimes there are the matters of loss mitigation; finding a solution for keeping a home when financial disaster threatens or, if nothing else, implementing the best exit strategy, be it deed-in-lieu-of-payment or short sale or foreclosure.

In a single, eight-hour class, Walker may cover budgeting to create solid family financial foundations, credit from the lender perspective, types of mortgages, dealing with real estate agents, obtaining home inspections separate from appraisals and getting acquainted with the players at a transaction closing. For this, the prospective buyer pays $25. For the homeowner with a property “under water” - a market value less than the mortgage due – or otherwise out of his depth financially and facing foreclosure, there is no charge for counseling, Walker added.

He got his start during the banking crisis of the 1980s with the Resolution Trust Corporation, helping liquidate troubled banks. And later, after acquiring “seat of the pants” education in connection with the pitfalls of home buying, joined a former colleague in 2002 to help get HEA off the ground. He learned, he said, he could command a podium and “found my calling. I come out of my shell and I’m compelled to share what I’ve learned.”

Over the years, he figured he‘s touched the lives of an estimated 10,000 individuals in families of all sizes. And it still gives him a thrill, he added, when former students spot him and rush “across the mall to tell me about their new home and how much it means to them and how what they learned from me made it possible.”

It may not be outlined in so many words on the plaque, but this, too, backs Walker’s award which led the presentations Saturday during the annual FHP Home Ownership Month Event in Bayou Pass Village III. The celebration featured a full Sonny’s meal of barbecued chicken or pork underwritten by TD Bank.

Walker shared the day with Tammye Trevino, rural development administrator in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who ceremoniously signed a large replica of the $2.04 million grant check from the agency, and with Moises Loza, executive director of the Housing Assistance Council in Washington, who formally presented another $2-plus million in grant monies for the local affordable housing program.

Florida Home Partnership, too, came in for kudos, receiving a Certificate of Commendation signed by all seven Hillsborough County Commissioners and formally given FHP by Commissioner Sandy Murman. The commendation, Murman said, expresses the gratitude of commissioners for making home ownership a reality as low and modest income buyers “build the dream they call home.”

And before it was over, a group of youngsters now living in Bayou Pass neighborhoods told Trevino in their own words what their homes mean to them, from the joy of a claimed bedroom to safety and security. Then, they gave her a framed collection of their small handprints.

The day that also saw several new homeowners receive the keys to their abodes began with a “playground build” adjacent to the community swimming pool and involving dozens of volunteers including local Home Depot store employees. It was completed by day’s end and praised heartily by Murman who noted “this is what it’s all about. This is community.”

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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