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She was a grad student at Alabama A&M, a small-town girl in a big-business world, preparing to climb the corporate ladder.

Then she went and fell in love. And not just with the local man she met. But with the whole place, the way she was accepted and welcomed here.

“It really felt like a big hug from a community, even without knowing who you were,” Turkessa Coleman says.

For the past dozen years, she’s been returning the favor. She’s a planner with the City of Huntsville’s Community Development Department, playing an instrumental role in aiding low-income families meet their housing needs. Most recently, she led the way in the annual Housing Expo, which brought together more than 50 vendors to provide information and assistance, particularly for first-time buyers.

Three C’s for Coleman

Coleman’s life can be put into three C categories, or even four, to throw in that local man she met years ago, Carl Lacey, who became her husband:

Cooking: Everybody called her “Toot” back in Talladega. Says Coleman, “I’m not even sure my grandmother could tell you my real name.”

The family ran a restaurant, which has evolved into a catering business now. She still goes back on Talladega Superspeedway race weekends to help out.

“I can’t cook a lick, but I can grill,” she says. “I can’t bake a thing, but in my mind, I can do wonders on a grill.”

She graduated from Talladega College with a degree in math and computer science, ready to fly the nest of the small town.

I fell in love with the place, with the people.”

Computers: Coleman latched on with IBM, moving to corporate headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., working on the Cobalt and C+++ programs. A cousin, Angela Swain, worked at Alabama A&M and recommended that Turkessa apply for the school’s master’s program in computer science program, which would help her advance at IBM.

She graduated and returned to Rochester. “But,” she says, “my brain was still in Huntsville.” Her heart, too. “I fell in love with the place, with the people.”

Community: Coleman landed a job with Teledyne Brown, but there was something else itching. She had an interest in urban planning so she took some courses at Alabama A&M.

She served an internship in Decatur’s Community Development office, working for  Michelle Jordan, now Huntsville’s Director of Planning. One of Coleman’s assignments was to go door-to-door in northwest Decatur, canvassing residents about a street lighting project.

“But you didn’t just talk about streetlights,” she says. “They wanted to talk about everything. That was the moment I realized this was what I wanted to do.”

Discovering new opportunities

Early in her tenure in Community Development, she asked if she could undertake additional training to learn more about HUD opportunities, particularly on down-payment assistance for first-time buyers. She then worked with local lenders who provided loans and within a year 80 families were able to purchase their first homes.

The down payment program continues and is funded federally at no cost to local taxpayers. Most of the assistance the City of Huntsville provides in that area is from money awarded by federal and state agencies, earned through rigorous grant processes.

Community Development was particularly helpful during the recession, with grant funding and other homeless assistance that enabled Huntsville to avoid being hit as hard as other cities.

Every now and again, a family that was helped through Coleman’s office might stop by to say thanks. They might bring a pie or a cake, a token of appreciation.

Or maybe it’s just a hug. That’s thanks enough. That’s enough to remind Coleman of why she fell in love with Huntsville in the first place. She knew she wanted to make her home here.

Did she ever imagine, though, how many homes she’d help make possible for others?