In 1997 Warrick Dunn signed a multimillion-dollar contract to play professional football with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His coach at the time, Tony Dungy, encouraged the rookie to find a way to give back.
“I wanted to do something that was a little bit more impactful, not just handing out turkeys,” he said in an interview with CNN. “I wanted to do something that had a real impact in the community.”
Dunn ruminated on potential ideas and his own life experiences. He decided to focus on helping single parents buy their own places to live.
To date, Warrick Dunn Charities has helped nearly 200 single parents purchase and furnish their own homes.
Inspired by his courageous mother
Dunn said the idea was inspired by his late mother, Betty Smothers, a single mom of six who worked as a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“She went out of her way even when she didn’t have a lot to help other people,” Dunn explained.
On January 7, 1993, two armed robbers ambushed and killed Smothers as she worked off duty escorting a businesswoman on a night bank deposit.
“She lost her life, and she was never able to realize her dream of homeownership,” said Dunn.
At 18 years old Dunn was left to look after his five younger siblings.
“I wanted to take the money from the insurance policy and actually give her kids something that she wanted to give them – a stable environment, a home.”
After his mother’s death, Dunn went on to star at Florida State University.
Once Dunn made it to the NFL, he looked to help other single parents realize that same dream.
“Everyone deserves a place to call home because home is where the heart is,” he said.
The work evolves
Dunn started with a program called Homes for the Holidays. It focused on simply getting people into homes.
“$5,000 down payment and we fully furnish their homes with food, furniture, linens, garden tools,TVs, computers all the way down to the toothbrush,” Dunn said.
“The more I learned, we wanted to get into the business of giving people the potential to break their cycle of poverty,” he explained. “Over the last 21 years, I’ve just learned a lot about different issues people face.”
Warrick Dunn Charities began partnering with Habitat for Humanity, community development groups, and financial institutions to get people into homes and secure their well being for the long haul.
“We’ve come up with services that can really help give families, tools so they can have some stability long term, and with that is financial literacy, health and wellness, education attainment and workforce development and entrepreneurship,” Dunn said.
Today, Warrick Dunn Charities has expanded from Homes for the Holidays to include three additional programs: Count on Your Future, Sculpt, and the Hearts for Community Service scholarships. Together Dunn says the programs can transform communities by fighting poverty and hunger and improving families’ quality of life academically, socially and economically.
“It set the foundation for me to think and to be able to be in a position to map out the next steps,” said Kia Savage-Lewis, a 2005 Home for the Holidays participant. “Up until that point, survival was my thinking process.”
Savage-Lewis completed her education and now runs her own small business.
Tackling the affordable housing crisis
According to Harvard University’s State of the Nation’s Housing report, 1 in 7 households (17.6 million in total) are “severely cost-burdened,” spending half or more of their income on housing.
Dunn’s organization is striving to change that.
“Now we’re actually getting to building only affordable housing for families,” Dunn said. “We want to make sure that things are affordable for people, and they’re not being pushed out of their communities.”
“This is just the first of hopefully many that we can do together in Augusta,” Dunn said. “Hopefully, this is building a model that we could take to other cities to help different communities that need our services.”
The former running back, who played 12 seasons with the Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons, has his eyes on the long game.
“We want to be able to help people that are trying to help themselves,” Dunn said.
“The goal is I hope we can go out of business, and when I say that, it’s no one else needs housing.”