“I never had a backyard and my daughter gets to have one”


A better life and a stronger future for ourselves and our families – at the end of the day, isn’t this what we all want? It’s certainly the vision of Tonya Martin and it’s been motivating her long before joining the Habitat Chicago homebuyer program in 2016. 


Inherently curious and brilliantly adventurous, Tonya Martin has been a happy, faithful Amtrak train attendant for over seven years. Her favorite trains to work on are those that head to California and Portland. On these routes, Tonya gets long layovers and has time to sightsee and adventure throughout the cities in which they stop. They also provide incomparable views, declares Tonya, as they venture through the Rockies and the Sierras.


Tonya rarely chooses to work this route, however, and instead travels primarily to Texas, a much less idyllic journey. Why does she chose this route?  Because its travel schedule allows her to get home two days earlier to her five-year-old daughter, Kayli. And nothing, no grand trip or picturesque view, is more valuable to Tonya than the time she and Kayli spend together. It doesn’t quite matter what they are doing - from practicing the alphabet to visiting family on the weekends to taking selfies (Tonya lovingly refers to them as the “selfie-queens”), Tonya is happiest of all when she and Kayli are together.


And the more you get to know Tonya, the clearer it becomes that everything she does, she does because she wants her daughter to be happy. It is why she decided to apply for the Habitat Chicago homebuyer program in the first place. 


For years, Tonya has been frustrated with her and Kayli’s living situation. It doesn’t at all match the expectation of the home she wants to provide for Kayli. Despite her building being a four flat walk-up, Tonya doesn’t know a single one of her neighbors. Instead, she wants to live somewhere she knows she can trust her neighbors to look out for her and her daughter and be able to turn to them for help if they ever need it. She wants to have the space to have friends and family over for dinners and barbeques, which her current apartment does not allow for. She wants to have a home that truly belongs to her and Kayli – that they can customize and design to reflect the bold, creative women they are. And most seriously, Tonya wants a home that is worth the money she is investing in it. Her current apartment is not that home. It is simply unaffordable, as over 30% of her income currently goes to her rent and the sacrifices she is making to pay this are not worth the space she and Kayli are getting in return. 


Tonya is beyond ready for this all to change and has driven her to be fully invested in the homeowner university courses and required volunteer hours that are part of the program, despite the simultaneous demands of her work schedule and taking care of Kayli. Tonya attends every homebuyer class ready to learn, her favorite so far being a financial literacy class in which she gained a deeper understanding of the way interest works. She heads to the construction site with the same curiosity, ready to get her hands dirty and build, recognizing that, “if something goes wrong with your house you might now know how to fix it.” Although, Tonya admits, this wasn’t true at first. “I didn’t know they were gonna have us doing different stuff each time. We thought we were just going to be doing little things! But we were really in there doing it, doing everything. They had me pulling out nails in the garage, they had me hammering. And I never held a hammer in my life. I was kind of nervous climbing ladders and stuff, but it was cool! Especially seeing that you’re building your neighbor’s house and knowing they’ll be doing that for you.” 


It seems, though, that Tonya’s readiness pales in comparison to Kayli’s. “Well we drove past the house so she could see what it’ll look like,” says Tonya, “and I kind of wish I didn’t do it because now she asks twice a week, ‘When do we get to move in our house? When do get to move in our house?’ And I have to keep telling her, ‘Not for a while.’”


Although move-in is still months away and the work can prove challenging, Tonya is enjoying it all because of the new opportunities that are waiting at the end: “It’s a new chapter for me and Kayli. I think we’re gonna be very happy in our new house. And we’ll have a backyard. I never had a backyard and my daughter gets to have one.”

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