WASHINGTON – It’s just before noon on an overcast and humid Sunday on the National Mall. Regina Best is down on her right knee, a screwdriver firm in her right hand, the nose held steady by her left. As she’s done countless times in the past couple of hours, she gives a strong squeeze of the trigger to drill another screw into the frame of what soon will become a home for a family without one.
Best is dressed properly for the occasion, with her short, petite frame swallowed up by a baggy gray T-shirt. She wears equally baggy gray shorts that hide her knees, casual black shoes, white socks that conceal her ankles and a left wrist full of trendy plastic bands that, together, are the color of a rainbow.
The kicker of the outfit is the white, rubber-band-like Habitat for Humanity sign tied like a bandana around her dark, naturally curly hair.
But, for Best, it’s really how she’s spent many a Sunday the past two years: building homes so others have a roof over their heads. Up until a month ago, she did so while not having a home for herself.
Life for Best, 40, started to unravel in 2011. By November, she lost her job as an assistant caterer.
“And then I was just in a really horrible relationship, and I ended up homeless,” Best says.
Best was born in 1973 on March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County in Southern California, although it was known as March Air Force Base when she came into the world.
She is a former staff sergeant in the Air Force, working as a chef during four years of active duty and serving three years as a reservist. She left the military in 2003.
In the span of time between post-military life and pre-AmeriCorps activity, Best was like many veterans: a civilian trying to find her footing in the world.
“I moved around a little bit, worked here and there, had my own business for a little bit, did a lot of catering for family,” she says.
Best now lives in Dallas, as she did when she was homeless and found herself in a Salvation Army shelter.
It was in the shelter where Best hit a personal bottom. At the time, she was aware of Habitat for Humanity, and thought they could offer her a fresh start.
“I’m like everyone else thinking Habitat houses are free. You know, you go there and you say you need a house, and they give you one,” says Best.
She soon found out there is no such thing as a free house. If she was going to get the one she wanted, she would have to pay some money toward buying it. Plus, Best would have to put in 250 of what’s called “sweat equity hours” on top of the financial contribution.
Best was in.
“I just started volunteering to see if I liked it, and I loved it, and I forgot about buying the house,” Best says with a hearty laugh, her small brown eyes covered by small-framed sunglasses.
Building houses became not only her hobby, but her passion. Though, after months of giving her time for others, she had an epiphany.
“How am I homeless, and building houses for other people?” Best says, before admitting it didn’t bother her in the least.
After about five months, she decided to officially join AmeriCorps.
The work has paid off handsomely. In April, she was with a group of 12 AmeriCorps workers who met with officials in the White House — although she was interrupted while telling her story.
“In the middle of me telling my story President Obama walked in, and surprised us all,” Best says.
“It was awesome.”
In May, she moved into her own apartment in Dallas. She’s back in school, a bachelor’s degree in culinary management a mere 40 credits away.
“If I can pull some good grades, and maybe do four classes, I can graduate by fall,” Best says. “If not, I’m scheduled to graduate in April 2014.”
Best wants to, once again, own her own catering company. Her dilemma though, is the possibility of leaving her volunteering roots.
But she’s ambitious enough that she would try to maintain both.
“Eventually, I’ll figure it out. It’ll come to me. The clouds will part and the sun will shine and say, ‘This is what you’re going to do,'” Best says, laughing loudly as if she’s really expecting the sun to concur.
For now, Best is breathing the air of optimism, her sights set on her calling, whatever that may be.
“I’m in a really good place right now,” Best says, her hands resting on the table, displaying the look of a woman completely relaxed in her own skin.
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