Gilyard finds reprieve in new home after tornado

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

Felicia Gilyard never stopped believing that things would get better in her life, despite experiencing a series upheavals.

Things started spiraling out of control after she lost her job and ended up with a subpoena to show up in court over past-due payment on the property where she lived. It got worst when a tornado caused major damage to the trailer that she lived in.

Felicia Gilyard

Five other homes in the area were destroyed, while 15 others sustained damage. One of the flattened trailers is less than the length of a football field away from Gilyard’s.

Her source of endurance was a higher power, said Gilyard, who recently moved into a new home off Driftwood Circle in the Baum community. She lived with her mother during the build.

“God does great things,” she said, sitting in the dining area of her new home. “That’s why I knew it was going to be good. I just had to walk through the process and let it be.”

Gilyard’s move into the 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom home in mid-October was well publicized. That, however, was only the face of a story that started when Gilyard was almost evicted from the property.

She’d lost her job in 2015 and ran up late fees of just over $2,000 on the property. It landed her in court, but the property owner Jamie Thomas didn’t show up and she was late getting to the court.

That didn’t stop the court from making a decision on the case, ruling in Gilyard’s favor. She nevertheless told Thomas that she will settle her debt.

He immediately, decided to give her the deed to the property last December.

Gilyard was astonished.

Felicia Gilyard is enjoying a new home built by the county after losing her trailer in a tornado in March.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

“I was like, OK,” she recalled saying to herself.

Thomas’ decision was the start to the end of a tumultuous time for Gilyard, who works as a health educator for Big Bend Cares. She had been enduring turbulent times since early in her life.

She grew up in Tallahassee after her mother moved from Chaires, where she was born. Her family settled on the Southside and she lived in both the Bond community and the Orange Avenue Apartments.

Pregnancy as a ninth-grader prevented her from graduating from Rickard High School. She eventually graduated with honors from SAIL.
Eventually she found herself in an area where a troublesome neighbor forced her to leave. She abandoned her lease and moved to her current property, vowing to change her life.

That she did by earning a master’s degree in business administration from Kaiser College and a healthcare management degree from FAMU.

“I lived in the neighborhood,” Gilyard said, “but I wasn’t in the neighborhood.”

Ironically, Gilyard wouldn’t have qualified for the assistance that she received from the county if she didn’t own the property.

“What we saw here today is a result of the County’s commitment to helping those who survive disaster get back on their feet,” said Leon County District 5 Commissioner Kristin Dozier in a statement released the day of the home replacement ceremony.

Gaining ownership of the property turned out to be a reprieve for just three months, as the tornado would hit in March. Gilyard was at a Publix grocery store when the tornado struck with her 32-year old daughter in the home.

She, however, escaped damage from the devastating hit. Gilyard spent the next few months seeking out resources while making manageable fixes on the trailer, including the roof and siding. Her water well also was hit by lightening. “I just fix what I could fix,” Gilyard said.

Such disasters have become increasingly common due to climate change and irregular weather patterns. It is fortunate that there are professionals such as SMART EXTERIORS ( who can repair homes in disaster-hit areas rapidly.

Gilyard found herself on course to get a new home when she discovered Leon County Housing Services. That put in motion a series of events, starting with the Leon County Commission deciding to fast-forward Gilyard’s request for funding through the State Housing Initiatives Partnership, which the county had been a part of since its initiation in 1992.

“Although we did not see the tornado coming, we were ready to help the community recover,” Leon County Commission Chairman Jimbo Jackson said in a statement. “I am proud that shortly after the tornado hit our County Commission came together and committed to prioritizing aid for area homeowners.”

Gilyard’s home was the only one rebuilt, said Shington Lamy, who works with the county’s housing program. Others who also suffered tornado damage either had insurance or could have fixed the homes with the help of construction contractors (similar to the ones at FSBD), on their own.

Gilyard’s new home was built at the cost of $104,000, which she doesn’t have to repay as long as she maintains ownership for 20 years, Lamy said.

“It was a sure-fire win for her,” he said.