Seven years ago, Nancy Brink was making only $100 a week at a part-time retail job and could barely afford a safe apartment for herself and her two daughters.
On Thursday, she welcomed about 30 friends and relatives into the four-bedroom, two-bathroom home on Lady's Island she recently purchased with a loan from a U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"People buy homes every day; it's not that special," Brink said, wiping away tears. "I just never thought I'd be one of them."
Brink also invited public officials and the media into her home because she wanted to spread the word to others who feel financially strapped. Her message: With hard work, home ownership is possible if you know where to look for public assistance.
Brink's path included two associate degrees from the Technical College of the Lowcountry and full-time employment with Hewlett-Packard.
"I knew right off the bat they were going to be one of our successes," Beaufort County Housing Authority director Angela Childers said of the Brinks. "You could just tell it, because of her perseverance. She was a model resident, but not only that, she was an inspiration to the community."
When Brink split with her husband in 2007, she had two daughters to care for and only part-time employment.
Such circumstances -- diminished income because of a divorce or loss of employment -- are not uncommon, Childers said. More than 11 percent of residents in Beaufort fall below the federal government's poverty line, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
The authority provides almost 1,000 low-income families with low-rent Section 8 or public housing units, Childers said.
After bouncing between her mother's home and a friend's, Brink's family referred her to the housing authority for help finding a place for her and her daughters -- Candace, then 11, and Katlyn, then 13.
"I wasn't embarrassed, but it was certainly humbling to have to say, 'I need help,' " she said.
After completing the authority's application and interview, the Brinks moved into public housing at the Oak Hill Terrace apartments in Port Royal for only $9 per month, Childers said. Rent in public housing is based on 30 percent of a family's total monthly income, minus deductions for child care and utilities, Childers said.
The authority also helped Brink sign up for food stamps and Medicaid while she picked up several more part-time positions, including jobs as a convenience store clerk and house cleaner.
"We were making it, but just barely," she said.
Brink knew she would need a full-time job to make a long-term change, so she turned to the Technical College of the Lowcountry.
Because of her low income, Brink qualified for federal Pell Grants, which paid for her tuition, course fees and books, she said. Eighty percent of TCL's more than 2,400 students receive some form of federal or state aid, college spokeswoman Leigh Copeland said.
After two years, Brink graduated with honors in 2011 with associate degrees in industrial electronics and general technology.
Later that year, a TCL classmate working at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort told her about a job on the base. After a phone interview just days later, she was repairing computer systems as a Hewlett-Packard subcontractor.
Her new income, however, disqualified her from food stamps and Medicaid, and her rent with the housing authority increased to the $600-per-month maximum, Brinks and Childers said.
"It wasn't an easy road for her, and I had to help keep her moving," said Julie Canfall, resident initiative coordinator with the housing authority. "She stuck with it, though. That's what we're there for, to provide stepping stones."
In June, Hewlett-Packard hired Brink directly to work as a networks technician at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. She now makes about $40,000 a year.
Her oldest daughter, Katlyn, now 18, graduated from Beaufort High School and plans to attend TCL this fall. Candace, now 16, begins her junior year at Beaufort High in September.
Brink also was urged by friend and Beaufort Realtor Faith Boulon to take advantage of one more program, which could get her out of public housing and into a home of her own.
The USDA's rural development program offers loans and grants for low-income families to purchase or repair a home, USDA program analyst Patricia Wilds said.
The program has distributed about $104 million in such grants and loans in Beaufort County during the past five years, Wilds said.
When Brink applied in April, she met with Wilds to discuss her application, finances and the journey that brought her there.
Brink's story moved Wilds to tears.
Under the direct home loan program, Brink's income qualified her for a loan of about $170,000, with 100 percent financing and no down payment, Wilds said.
A few weeks later, Brink and Boulon found the home Brink had dreamed of -- a 1,500-square-foot house with a back patio and two trees perfect for a hammock on a cul-de-sac on Lady's Island.
Brink closed on the house at the end of June, and her monthly payments of about $875 are within her new budget.
On Thursday, Brink and the USDA hosted a housewarming party with the agencies and friends that helped her along the way.
Although Brink says those friends and agencies made her rise possible, they each credit her determination and willingness to accept help at every turn.
"When people think about 'low income,' they don't know what they can do," Wilds said. "These programs try to even those odds. It takes a village."
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.