Army veteran and family surprised with renovated Cleveland Heights home

“Welcome home,” the crowd cheered as retired U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Charlie Pepinrivera and his family saw their new home on Canterbury Road in Cleveland Heights for the first time on Saturday, May 18.

The four-bedroom, 1,736-square-foot home was purchased and renovated by Citizens Bank, in partnership with Military Warriors Support Foundation’s Homes 4 Wounded Heroes program, then donated to Pepinrivera, his wife, Maribel, and their six children, ages 13 to 22. (Five of the children will live with Charlie and Maribel while one has followed in his father’s footsteps and is serving in the Army.) It is the family’s first house.

Pepinrivera served 24 years in the military—starting his career with the Puerto Rico National Guard in 1993 before joining the Army in 1998 and serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Bosnia.He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury after twice being wounded—once when an IED exploded and blew off part of his shoulder and part of this leg; then when he fell out of a helicopter during a military operation.

Pepinrivera received the Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, and numerous meritorious service medals. After Pepinrivera retired in 2017, the family lived in San Antonio, Texas before coming to Cleveland to be closer to family and friends.

“I got here from San Antonio on Tuesday [and] I’ve been crying since Tuesday for this moment,” Pepinrivera said after seeing the house. “This doesn’t happen to a lot of people, this doesn’t happen to us, until now. We never got anything for free, not even a shirt going to a game. Having a home—and all this—and the community is just amazing.”

Maribel expressed the same sentiments. “It’s beyond our expectations, you can feel the love,” she said. “We can’t wait to meet our neighbors.”

While the family knew they were getting a house, Pepinrivera said he expected a fixer-upper house that may have a fresh coat of paint.

But what they saw after they turned around and toured their new home was a newly-repaired (the entire back corner of the house had to be rebuilt) and painted house that was furnished with furniture, new appliances, and home décor touches. Even the fridge and kitchen were stocked with groceries. In the garage, there were more donations—a grill, snowblower, and lawnmower, among other outdoor tools and games.

Charlie, who was stunned by the community’s generosity, was quick to deflect statements that he is an American hero. “I tell everybody I’m not a hero, I’m just a guy who wants to make a difference," he said, "and now you guys are making a difference to me and my family."

An avid cook and baker, Maribel was thrilled with the gourmet kitchen—complete with stainless steel gas appliances and a KitchenAid stand mixer. "I’m going to work my magic in that kitchen,” she said. “We like to eat a lot. We have a big family. Whoever likes Latin food, this is the place to come.”

The Pepinriveras are known for giving back to their community. “Charlie’s service didn’t end through his service to the armed forces,” said Brad Conner, Citizens’ vice chair of consumer banking. “They volunteer by helping to feed the homeless and by providing clothing and school materials to children while bringing happiness and cheer through inspiring music.”

Maribel was awestruck by being on the other side of giving. “We’re so used to giving to other people that when it’s our time to receive it feels so weird,” she said. “But it feels so amazing. It’s just so real, this experience, all these people, the love, you can just feel that it’s real, it’s genuine, and that really makes a difference. I’m so happy to be a part of this community, and God’s timing is always perfect.”

Parker Platt, Citizens’ vice chairman of consumer banking, says this is the sixth house Citizens has donated across the region (the first in Cleveland), and is by-far the nicest project they’ve done to date.

“This could not be a more deserving family for this occasion,” he says. “More than 100 colleagues have donated over 4,000 hours into making this house a home in doing everything from demolition to painting to putting in the yard—you name it—all putting their heart and soul into it. This is truly the home that love has built, or in this case, renovated.”

“The people who have given their hours have given beyond,” said Kathy Feeney, senior advisor for housing with the Military Warriors Support Foundation. “They are so proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish and give this family. It’s an absolute blessing for this family after all they have been through.”

Almost two dozen retail, service, and supply companies donated goods and services to transform the home. Additionally, the Pepinrivera family was presented with gift cards from area retailers.

Before the house reveal, a parade down Canterbury included members of the Cleveland Heights police and fire departments, the Ohio AmVets Post 40 Ladies Auxiliary color guard, Patriot Guard Riders, and Team Red White and Blue to celebrate the arrival of the Pepinrivera family.

Cleveland Heights mayor Carol Roe presented a proclamation to the family. “We are proud and honored to have you here and hope you will enjoy many years of happiness in your home on Canterbury Road,” she told them. “On behalf of City of Cleveland Heights, the people of Cleveland Heights, we wish each of you contentment, adventure, and many new experiences in your new community of Cleveland Heights. Welcome.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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