Lisa Anderson, 48, is the sole caregiver of two 20-year-olds with cerebral palsy, who spend most of their time in wheelchairs.
After living in their Austell house for more than 15 years, Anderson and her daughters were facing foreclosure and eviction until JPMorgan Chase & Co. decided to forgive the money owed on back payments and allow the family to stay in the home mortgage free.
“It really, truly, sincerely is a miracle for me,” Anderson said with tears trickling down her face. “It is not just your basic blessing.”
Anderson, who had been living in Paulding County when her daughters were born, was married for two years. She decided to divorce her husband just days before the girls were diagnosed by a neurologist.
Amber and Alicia Whatley were born almost two months premature, so Anderson said she was told to expect developmental delays.
“I knew it was a disability, but I really didn’t know anything beyond that,” Anderson recalls about being told the girls had cerebral palsy, which is caused by damage to the motor control centers of the developing brain.
Although cerebral palsy is not terminal, the chronic disease affects body movement, depth perception and communication functions.
“It is something where they never get better,” said Anderson, who added the twins have mild cases on the spectrum of cerebral palsy.
Still, Anderson said she thought her daughters would get better as they grew up. But as soon as progress is made in one area, a new challenge comes.
“They will live with me forever,” Anderson said.
An all-too-familiar story of foreclosure
According to recent reports, the foreclosure rates in Georgia and Cobb have returned to levels not seen since 2006, two years before the Great Recession hit.
Even though the housing market is rebounding, many families continue to suffer from the recession and carry heavy financial burdens that have piled up over the last decade.
In 2008, Anderson was laid off along with a mass of coworkers at the Atlanta-based Zep Inc., a manufacturer of industrial cleaning products.
Anderson, who had worked for the company for 20 years, said she often relied on help with the twins from her parents and sister who live in nearby Dallas, as well as a very understanding boss.
“I have been a single parent all this time,” said Anderson.
Anderson said she had no intention of remaining unemployed and has been taking classes online with Ashford University for four years.
During these thin times, Anderson went through her entire 401(k) retirement account, eventually falling behind on payments. She declared bankruptcy a few years ago, and her home was facing foreclosure.
The day the mayor came knocking
In those final moments of despair is when the community began advocating for Anderson and her girls.
Anderson — who said she would not have recognized the city’s mayor if they passed on the street — was given the shock of a lifetime when Mayor Joe Jerkins knocked on her door this past fall.
“I heard she needed a roof on her house, so I went to see her one day,” Jerkins said about his visit this past October.
Once Jerkins realized the seriousness of the problem, Anderson said he kept reassuring her it would be figured out.
“She was fixin’ to lose her house and didn’t want the girls to know,” Jerkins said.
So Jerkins gathered a group of nine friends to buy Anderson’s house, which sits on less than an acre tucked off Owens Drive north of Powder Springs Road.
According to the Cobb Tax Assessor’s office, the home is appraised for almost $48,000, but Anderson still owed $100,000 to the bank.
Anderson said the initial contact by Jerkins to Chase about the purchasing price and the dire situation stopped the foreclosure process.
“At least that got their attention and got them to care about my case,” Anderson said.
Unlikely business move by a bank
A month ago, Anderson was told over the phone her mortgage payments would be forgiven.
“I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘What did you say?’” Anderson said.
When Anderson told Jerkins the bank had mentioned gifting her the home, he responded, “I doubt that.”
Jerkins said he did not force the bank to donate the home or expect Chase to make the offer. In fact, Jerkins said he would not believe a bank would make this kind of exception if he had not witnessed it himself.
“A big bank working with a small mayor, it was unreal,” Jerkins said.
On Wednesday, representatives from Chase conducted a news conference at Austell’s Threadmill Complex to celebrate the family receiving their “lifetime keys.”
With his eyes watering and voice cracking, Jerkins said the response by Chase, “just touched me so much.”
Vice President and Senior Lending Manager at JPMorgan Chase for Georgia and North Florida Micah Stringer said the case was about a dedicated mom who was having unique struggles.
“Sometimes exceptional problems call for exceptional solutions,” Stringer said.
Stringer said Anderson’s mortgage concern ran all the way up to the top of the corporate level for approval.
“May your family enjoy it for many, many years to come,” Stringer said.
Community rallies to her side
Now the Austell community, which has embraced these residents like extended family, is ready to continue the good work for Anderson and her girls by repairing her leaky roof, the bumpy gravel driveway and heating unit.
“In case she needs something, we are going to be checking on her,” Jerkins said.
Many community members came to Wednesday’s press conference to support Anderson and check on her daughters.
Jim and Becky Graham live in Powder Springs and have known Anderson and the Whatley twins for a few years.
“I don’t know how this lady does it,” Becky Graham said about Anderson being a “good mother” to “extremely sweet children.”
Jim Graham, who works for the city of Austell, first met Anderson after hearing about efforts by coworkers to help pay the family’s power bill.
“My wife met the girls and we fell in love with them,” said Jim Graham, who, with his wife, donates money to Anderson during the Christmas season.
A modest home, filled with love
Anderson said she picked her home in 2000 because it was a ranch with no stairs and extra-wide hallways.
“It is a modest home, but it suits our needs,” Anderson said about the 1,558-square-foot red-brick home built in 1975.
After their mother returned home from the news conference Wednesday afternoon, Alicia Whatley said. “I love this area … I never thought that God was going to be that good.”
Alicia Whatley said if the family had been forced from their home, she might have had to stop attending South Cobb High School with her sister.
Amber and Alicia Whatley will be allowed to attend South Cobb High School until they are 22. The twins will turn 21 this summer.
There are 12 to 14 kids in their orthopedically impaired class. Alicia Whatley said they take school work very seriously.
“We make awesome grades,” Alicia Whatley said.
When asked if they like being twins, Amber Whatley said, “It is kind of hard because we answer each other’s sentences.”
But their mom said the twins, who share a bedroom, cannot stand to be apart.
“They would be lost without each other,” Anderson said.
Personality wise, the dynamic twins are very different in their mother’s eyes.
Alicia Whatley, who is very talkative and energetic, loves gospel and country music. Her favorite is the hymn, “I’ll Fly Away.”
Amber Whatley is a jokester who enjoys computer work, both practicing her spelling words as well as playing games. She also loves her baby dolls.
“I will find them online and ask Mama to get them for me, or tell her how to buy them,” Alicia Whatley said. “Then she will buy them for me and I will cry happy tears.”