OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — As the result of a big heart and a little determination, an Okeechobee man has won the fight to keep his home.
It was damaged beyond repair after Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017. It was one woman's fight to help the man, once a stranger, that has changed the trajectory of his life.
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"If I hadn't met her, I honestly don't know today where I would be, and that's the truth," James Challancin said.
Challancin is talking about Tonya Ford.
The two neighbors knew of each other after she came through his line at Home Depot. She helped him apply for a credit card years ago, but that was about it.
Fast forward a few years later to 2017 when Ford was driving home from work when some neighbors flagged her down. They were gathered in front of Challancin's travel trailer off busy Highway 78. Had she not turned her head, she would have missed them.
Challancin is forever grateful she chose to stop.
"If it wasn't for her and the determination and hard work ... She's done a lot for me," Challancin said.
Upon pulling over, Ford was shown the severe storm damage done to Challancin's home. The windows lining one side of his home were completely blown out, a wall had collapsed and the roof was caving in.
Ford wasted no time looking into how to help Challancin apply for help.
"We did the application, [but] of course he was denied. So when you're denied, they give you an option to appeal. So we appealed it and we appealed it after that and after that and after that, like three times with FEMA after the original application," Ford said.
It was discouraging, and it was challenging. Ford didn't give up, and she didn't let Challancin, living in disrepair, lose hope either.
"My mother used to manage a law office for 25 years, and she has always been determined and persistent in her goals, and that's where I got that from," Ford said.
After three-and-a-half years, finally, there was some progress.
Ford and Challancin recently got word that a judge in Tallahassee has ruled he is eligible for storm damage assistance. They are now waiting for a damage assessment to be done and it could result in not only repair, but the replacement of his home.
"Very much appreciate it, but I hope it works out for me. If it doesn't, I'm going to hate it worse than anything because of all the hard work and dedication that she's put into it, trying to help a stranger," Challancin said.
The neighbors, who are now lifelong friends, agree the way in which they were brought together should serve as inspiration, proof and hope of what can come when people look out for one another.
"The world would be a better place if everybody just helped each other when they need help," Ford said.
Challancin was a mechanic for 32 years and spent most of his career at Jupiter Dodge. Four hip replacement surgeries and five heart attacks put him out of the workforce and on disability, which is now his only means for income.
Ford has also created an online fundraiser for him.