November 9, 2023

A decade of giving back: Wells Fargo’s $60 million gift of 400 homes to veterans

Marlene Zander was the recipient of a mortgage-free home nearly a decade ago. Today, she’s still thriving thanks to a burgeoning home business.

On the hands of Marlene Zander are six indelible words, serving as forever reminders of where she’s been and where she’s going.

“From the dark,” it says on her right hand. “Into the light,” it says on her left hand.

‘From the dark’

Born and raised in San Bernardino, California, Zander craved structure, discipline, camaraderie, and teamwork — all tenets of military service — from an early age.

Zander joined the Army in 2003, serving as a motor transportation operator. Her responsibilities included delivering caches of cargo — weapons, equipment, hazardous materials — to military support sites and combat zones.

In three tours in Iraq, Zander’s vehicle was hit twice (2005 and 2007) by an improvised explosive device, or IED. During the first attack, Zander was thrown from her vehicle and diagnosed with a concussion, while the second caused her to be put into a medically induced coma because of brain swelling.

“Right after they brought me back (from the coma), I developed epilepsy,” said Zander. “It's ultimately what put me out. They couldn't control the seizures for a very long time. So, I was on convalescent leave for like two or three years. I couldn’t handle a firearm anymore and so they medically retired me in April 2013.”

"It totally changed my life. I’m living the American dream now because I’m debt-free and have my own home." Marlene Zander Founder of Fitness Brigade
Marlene plays with her dog outside her home.
Marlene Zander, a 2015 recipient of a mortgage-free home from Military Warriors Support Foundation and Wells Fargo, served in the Army and had three tours in Iraq from 2003-2009.

Prior to her medical retirement, Zander received a Purple Heart from the Army.

The oldest military award still presented, the Purple Heart is given to service members who have been wounded or killed as a result of enemy action while serving in the United States military. Zander is one of an estimated 500 women to ever receive the honor.

But without the thing she believed was her calling, Zander’s new reality didn’t make sense.

“To have a chronic disorder for the rest of your life and not understand it, it was the definition of struggle,” she said. “I wanted to be in the Army for the rest of my life. All they (could) tell me was ‘we can’t help you anymore. You can no longer be a soldier.’’’

Without the military, Zander lost her only source of income. In the first six months after being medically retired, Zander exhausted her savings accounts and racked up credit card debt. Not even a year after leaving the military, she was on the verge of homelessness.

Financial worries, epilepsy, and clinical depression proved to be a destructive cocktail sending Zander deeper into the dark. That’s when she found Military Warriors Support Foundation, or MWSF.

"My purpose is to serve others and so they have the feeling that there's more to life than just their everyday job." Marlene Zander Founder of Fitness Brigade
Two people stand together outside of a brick home
After selling her mortgage-free home in 2020, Marlene Zander and her spouse purchased a new accessible home in San Antonio. Zander is one of an estimated 500 women to receive the Purple Heart.

‘Into the light’

Founded in 2007, MWSF provides programs facilitating a smooth and successful transition for combat-wounded veterans, with a focus on housing, transportation, outdoor recreation, and leadership development.

One of MWSF’s signature programs, Homes4WoundedHeroes, provides wounded veterans with mortgage-free homes. With help from Wells Fargo, MWSF has donated nearly 100 mortgage-free homes to veterans.

“Wells Fargo’s military home donation program is really powered by an incredible partnership with the Military Warriors Support Foundation,” said Jay Everette, head of Community Relations for Wells Fargo Foundation. “The program is over 10 years old and we have donated more than 400 homes valued at more than $60 million to support veterans and families in all 50 states.”

“Initially, I didn’t feel like I deserved something like that,” Zander said. “They basically said ‘You’ve already done all you could to take care of us. It’s the last thing we can do to take care of you.’”

Zander relocated from California to San Antonio, Texas, in 2015 and moved into her mortgage-free home on Sept. 11, 2015. Along with receiving the home, MWSF provides financial mentoring that helped Zander boost her savings to unprecedented levels.

“It totally changed my life,” she said. “I'm living the American dream now because I'm debt-free and I have my own home. I had to stay there for three years, but the home wasn’t necessarily handicap accessible. (With) the house and all of the improvements in my mental health, I felt like I was ready to bring somebody into my life.”

Today, Zander and her wife still live in San Antonio, but in a new home. They decided to sell the mortgage-free home, allowing them to have a significant down payment on a new home and modify it to meet Zander’s needs.

“I kind of know exactly now when I’m going to have a seizure or feel like one is coming,” she said. “So, I have a seated area in my shower, and handles to grab near the toilet area. The flooring had to change in case I fall there, I have a bidet in my toilet. And I was able to my buy extra equipment for my home gym.”

From her new home, Zander founded Fitness Brigade, a personal training company providing lifestyle changes for those in the impaired community. Her new job, in her new home, has given her a new “why?”

“My purpose is to serve others and so they have the feeling that there's more to life than just their everyday job,” she said. “Helping them understand that when something happens, something traumatic, that it’s not going to be the end of the world. There’s always time, there’s always an ability to overcome.”