By Soyia Ellison
Regina Best doesn’t have a home, but she spends her days building houses for others.
Best, a U.S. Air Force veteran and an AmeriCorps member at Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity  in Texas, has been homeless since November 2011, when she moved into a Salvation Army shelter.
Though she recognizes the irony of her situation, she doesn’t dwell on it.
“There’s a scripture that says, ‘It’s better to give than receive,’ ” she said. “And I take that to heart… It makes me happy to be able to give.”
Culinary career and military service
Best grew up in Southern California, where her father worked as a chef on the March Air Reserve Base. A daddy’s girl, she followed in his footsteps — first pursuing a culinary career and later joining the Air Force.
“The experience was phenomenal. Four years of food service. I cooked. I did a whole lot of different things. I met people, went places.”
Her stint included tours in Japan, Turkey, Northern California and Kuwait. After that, she spent three years in the Reserves, which took her to Spain and Germany.
“Places I never imagined going, I went.”
Best left the Air Force to pursue her dream of being a chef. But the transition from military to civilian life proved difficult, particularly financially. Though she landed a job as an assistant chef at a catering company in Dallas, she eventually found herself without a place she could afford to live.
So she moved into the Salvation Army shelter — an experience she calls “humbling.”
Then, last spring, things got worse: Best lost her job.
“I’ve been to the top of where I wanted to be in my life,” she said, “and to the bottom, where I never imagined myself being.”
Habitat for Humanity and AmeriCorps
She began climbing back up with the help of Habitat for Humanity and AmeriCorps .
Best had gotten involved with Habitat even before she lost her job, through a program at the shelter. Initially, she said, she had volunteered for selfish reasons, hoping it might help her get a Habitat house.
“But somewhere about the third week,” she said, “I completely forgot about trying to get a house and just went with it. I thoroughly enjoyed building with the partners.”
When she lost her job, someone at Dallas Area Habitat suggested she apply for an AmeriCorps construction crew leader position there. She did. She also enrolled in school, with plans to finally complete her bachelor’s degree in culinary management.
It’s a grueling schedule at the moment — building in the cold all day, juggling four courses’ worth of homework at night — but it has its rewards.
“I thoroughly enjoy doing what I do with AmeriCorps,” she said. “Chef to construction — it still kicks me in the side of the head, like, ‘How did that happen?’ But I like it.”
And the Habitat staff likes having her there.
“She’s been doing great,” said Rusty Daniel, a shop supervisor at Habitat Dallas. “She shows a lot of initiative. She’s great with working with volunteers and homeowners, as far as showing them what to do.”
Things are looking up
Best spent her 40th birthday in the Salvation Army shelter, but since then she’s been housesitting and she thinks she’s finally just a few weeks from getting her own apartment.
She also has leads on two potential jobs in Hawaii once she’s finished with her coursework and her AmeriCorps year — one as a restaurant chef and one as an instructor in a culinary school. She said she can feel herself inching closer to her dream of owning a food truck. And she is looking forward to the day when she’ll live in a home built with her own two hands, thanks to the skills she’s learned at Habitat.
Meanwhile, she said, she’s grateful for the opportunity to feel she’s serving her country again.
She encourages fellow veterans in her life skills classes to volunteer with Habitat: “I tell them, ‘For those of you who want to continue serving your country, this is a great way to do it. You’re building a house for families. You’re putting in time.’ “
Feeling that she’s making a contribution is vital to her recovery, she said.
“Financially, I’m not able to help out. People come up to me and ask me for a dollar, and I don’t have a dollar. [Habitat] is a way to fulfill that need to give… From the beginning to the end, it’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling.”
June 2014 update: Starting a nonprofit restaurant
As her second year as an AmeriCorps member with Dallas Area Habitat was nearing its end in July, Best was applying for full-time jobs with nonprofits and also planning to start her own: an ambitious nonprofit restaurant that would be based on donations and volunteer labor and would feed everyone, from middle-class families to the homeless.
“It’s based on Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen in New York and the Panera Bread Community Cafes,” she said, “but also modeled after Habitat. I would have volunteers who would clean, cook and serve, and I would feed anyone without them having to pay. You could get a top-notch gourmet meal but not feel like you’re in a gourmet restaurant.”
The restaurant will be called “On the House,” and she’s working on a business plan, 501(c)(3) registration and finding donors.
“I have the management and culinary experience, and I have been working with Habitat,” she said. “I figure I can merge the two and create something that will feed the hungry people we have here.”
Best was also “honored and humbled” to be invited to speak about her service June 5 at the Aspen Institute’s annual summit on national service; other scheduled speakers included Barbara Bush, Chelsea Clinton, author Walter Isaacson and retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal.