Nelly Velez knows the meaning of perseverance and generosity.
The grandmother of nine has survived some of life’s greatest challenges, including homelessness, breast cancer and the loss of her husband. She says God’s grace helped her through affliction, so now she’s paying it forward.
There was a time in the early 1980s when Velez was a young wife and mother without a home. She remembers cold East Coast winters, huddled with her husband in a van doing everything they could to care for their infant son.
“When he was a baby, I would open up my shirt and hold him close to keep him warm at night,” she said.
The couple eventually escaped homelessness, but found themselves bouncing between rental apartments and working hard to try and shelter their family.
The hardship continued for decades until 2004 when a miracle happened that changed the course of her family’s lives.
That was the year Habitat For Humanity in Connecticut selected her family to receive a home there.
"That is a blessing because you work hard for it, it’s not given to you,” she said.
Velez had the opportunity to make choices she'd never had before, like picking out cabinets and carpet.
"It was amazing,” she said. “It was like, oh my God, you get to go to this lottery store and you pick whatever you want and it's really exciting."
Velez says she and her husband put hours of “sweat equity” into their new home.
Ten years later, in 2014, Velez beat breast cancer. In the spring of that year she nearly lost her life during a medical procedure and just months after that, she lost her passed away.
She said she made a promise to honor her late husband's dying request.
"We didn't have much. He said, ‘Whatever you do, you keep this house. We worked hard for it,” Velez said.
Velez's daughter and several of her grandchildren now live in that home in Connecticut. Between her son and daughter, she's a grandmother to nine kids.
In 2017 Velez moved from Connecticut to San Diego with her grown son and went back to school at Concorde Career College and graduated a year later.
Bill Kilby with Concorde Career College said Velez is proof you can be a star student at any age.
"She has a unique blend of being tender and tough," he said. “I mean, it's so cliché to say, but she's really an inspiration. And her story, you don't even have to hear it in great detail to be affected."
Realizing what the gift of a home did for her and her family, Velez decided to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity’s San Diego chapter this year. She’s currently working on a home for a family in Sherman Heights.
"The joy that I had received was a blessing and an honor to receive,” she said. “I wanted to pay it forward.”
Lori Pfeiler, CEO for San Diego Habitat for Humanity, said Velez is living the Habitat for Humanity mission.
"Nelly is absolutely the essence of what we believe safe and decent housing brings to people,” Pfeiler said. “When you have a home that you can call your own, you can take care of everything else.”
Velez said now she often comes to a specific spot in Imperial Beach overlooking the marina to reflect and pray.
“The only reason why I'm here today, breathing here today, is because of God. Because of his love," she said.
Velez started her new job shortly after her graduation and says she's still grateful to this day for how the gift of a home changed her life early on. She’s hoping to inspire the same sense of hope and purpose in another family.
“You just keep doing the best that you can. You know there's always stumbling blocks but when you keep getting back up you keep going," she said.