SALIDA -- "It's a great Christmas gift," Marine veteran Ryan Dinkel said Wednesday morning, looking around from the kitchen of the Salida home just donated to him and his fiancee by Wells Fargo and the nonprofit organization Operation Homefront.
Dinkel and Melanie Nordhaus, who will wed next October, were seeing the interior of the three-bedroom, two-bath residence in the Gold Valley subdivision for the first time, having seen only the exterior since learning the address a couple of weeks ago.
"Spacious," the 33-year-old veteran said as he walked around the high-ceilinged, 1,564-square-foot house, which was built in 1999. He was especially impressed with the garage, where he said he'll work on vehicles and keep his hunting and fishing gear.
"It looks incredible," Nordhaus exclaimed. Coming from a 600-square-foot apartment the couple have shared in Lodi, she said she's thrilled to have a kitchen that's "bigger than the bathroom."
And they both agreed that their dogs -- a St. Bernard and a black Lab -- will have a blast in the grassy backyard. As for the storage shed out back, it was jokingly referred to by the couple and others exploring the home as a future "man cave" or "in-law quarters."
The couple plan to begin moving in this weekend, and with furniture that amounts to little more than a sofa and a love seat, Nordhaus, 27, said some serious shopping lies ahead. "We're probably going to have to go out and buy a lot. But let's be real ? it won't be because I need things, but because I want them," she said of how much she's looking forward to attractively furnishing her first home.
Dinkel served in the Marines for nine years before receiving a medical discharge in 2008. He was based at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County for three years, did a year of training in Japan and was based at Camp Lejeune for five years. Between 2003 and 2008, he served two back-to-back tours in Iraq, he said.
He received his discharge after back surgery and knee replacement. Upon leaving the Marines, Dinkel said, he hoped to get into law enforcement, and earned a degree, but his disability level is too high for him to find employment in that field. He also suffers from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder and, upon completing his coursework for a degree in psychology, intends to work as a counselor for veterans.
"I figure with the personal experience I have with the ailments, I have a more direct outlook on the causes and the fixes," he said. "Other people are learning (just) from books, and it's not working."
Dinkel and Nordhaus applied for the mortgage-free home through Operation Homefront, a nationwide nonprofit that provides emergency and other financial assistance to the families of service members and wounded warriors. The house was donated by Wells Fargo, which has owned it since June. Wells Fargo partners with Operation Homefront and other groups that aid veterans, and this is the 78th house the financial institution has donated to veterans this year.
Oscar Cabello, Wells Fargo's district manager for the Modesto area, said the groups seek heroes such as Dinkel to give them a place to come home to after their service. The idea is to help veterans achieve the American dream of homeownership, which is fitting because "we would not have these rights and benefits without the hard work" of the men and women in the service, Cabello said. "You couldn't find a better family for this home."
Dinkel said he was "overwhelmed" at being given the house. "It's a great honor," he said. "I didn't think this was possible, but it is."
Before awarding the home to Dinkel and Nordhaus, Operation Homefront had new carpeting, new appliances, and new sod and landscaping put in, and the home was freshly painted.
Megan Bennett, an Operation Homefront housing caseworker, pointed out that while the house is mortgage-free, it is not cost-free to the couple. Homeownership is a big responsibility, she said, and the home comes with a requirement of a year of financial-literacy education by the new owners. Also, the couple will make payments that include property tax, homeowner association fees if there are any, closing costs and money to fund a maintenance plan. Applicants for homes are screened to ensure they can meet the financial obligation, she said, because Operation Homefront doesn't want to put an unreasonable financial burden on recipients.
Bennett said Dinkel and Nordhaus were selected to receive the home based in part on the good work they do and their ties to the community. He is the service officer for the American Legion in Lodi, he said, and is active in the VFW in Lockeford. She works for the city of Lodi as a coordinator of after-school programs.
Together, they run a food bank in Lodi for veterans that has given out more than 800 pounds of food this year, Dinkel said. "Just being in the service that long, that brotherhood, you see guys getting out and they're hurting and you want to help them any way you can."
Welcoming the couple to their new home Wednesday, Cabello said, "I think this is a great way to start the holidays."
And after handing them the keys, he added, "If you need help moving your stuff in, give me a call."