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A homeless Camden mom worked all year to buy a house. Then volunteers surprised her by filling it with furnishings.

Lykia Turner spent months without a home for herself and her daughter. Now she owns her house, and with help from a group of Camden County employees, it's move-in ready.

Lykia Turner (left) and her daughter, Shetori Randall, get emotional after seeing one of their new bedrooms in their new, fully furnished home in Camden.
Lykia Turner (left) and her daughter, Shetori Randall, get emotional after seeing one of their new bedrooms in their new, fully furnished home in Camden.Read moreANTHONY PEZZOTTI / Staff Photographer

Lykia Turner came home Friday to soft carpets beneath her feet, beds with clean sheets, food in the refrigerator, and lights twinkling from Christmas tree branches. Just three steps through the doorway, she was already crying.

“I love it,” said Turner, 41. “It’s beautiful.”

Inside the living room of Turner’s new home on the Camden-Pennsauken border was a team of volunteers who spent the last two weeks furnishing and decorating the house, getting it ready for her to move in as soon as she signed the closing papers. One by one they embraced Turner, congratulating her on her first home.

Turner spent 2019 working toward this moment. With help from St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society, a Camden-based nonprofit that helps residents become homeowners, she met with a mortgage counselor and took courses on home ownership. She couch-surfed with her 12-year-old daughter for months, rebuilt her credit score, and paid down debt. She peddled homemade dinners for cash and sold her possessions at a yard sale.

She poured everything she had into buying the house, so she didn’t know when she’d be able to get furnishings like beds and a couch.

Meanwhile, Employee Connections, a charitable organization of Camden County employees that does fund-raising for projects like delivering Thanksgiving meals to families in need, had more donation money than usual this year.

Members wanted to put it toward helping someone pay some of the final bills that come with buying a home. Through St. Joseph’s they met Turner, covered some of her closing costs, then negotiated with Raymour & Flanigan to provide furniture. Volunteers hung blinds and curtains, cleaned from top to bottom, and stocked the kitchen with fruit, eggs, and a frozen turkey.

“She did all the hard work that goes into buying a home,” said Pilar Hogan Closkey, executive director of St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society, which rehabilitated the property using funding from a state tax credit. “This was about getting her this little extra bit of support to get her over the finish line.”

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Turner, a phlebotomist with LabCorp in Camden, also has an adult son in the U.S. Army reserve and another who attends Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Both will be home for Christmas; her younger son was expected to arrive Friday night after his last final exam of the semester. He will sleep in his own room, down the hall from the bedrooms of his mother and sister.

Turner decided to buy property about a year ago, after she got a pay increase that left her unable to continue living in subsidized housing. But she needed better credit and a down payment. She and her daughter spent much of the year staying with friends, keeping most possessions in storage. Their dog, Nike, had to live with Turner’s parents.

The first bank she asked for a loan rejected her. But around Thanksgiving, she was finally approved for a mortgage.

“It still feels like I’m visiting,” Turner said Friday. She opened closets hesitantly, and admired the brand new washer and dryer. “You know, like when you go to an open house?”

Christmas trees were set up on the enclosed front porch and in the living room alongside a basket of ornaments. Turner is looking forward to summer cookouts in her backyard, and to Christmas morning when she and her children can relax without being guests in someone else’s home.

“It’s too much,” Turner told Molly Brown, who works for Camden County’s Department of Human Resources, as they toured the bedrooms. “This is too much.”

“We just hope you like it,” Brown said. “You deserve it.”