Antoinette Ford, a 29-year-old Marine veteran, gazed upon her brand-new, bright-red Nissan Sentra.

“Now I can go look for another job, and I can do all these things that I haven’t been able to do,” she said.

The vehicle represented a remarkable turn for the single mother, who started 2019 without a home, spending nearly three months living in her old car with her 9-year-old son, Jaire.

The new Sentra is hers to use as she wants for a year, for free.

A group of community leaders and business owners unanimously concluded that Ford was a veteran worthy of recognition, and a helping hand. They presented the car to her at Rocking Nissan of Stafford County.

Ford will have full use of the automobile for one year and will never have to pay for gasoline for that period. The staff of the North Stafford car dealership chipped in to cover the fuel costs, and Nissan North America even gave Ford a gift certificate to purchase groceries.

“With everything that she had been through, really she needed this the most,” said Mark Sorensen, general manager of Mission BBQ, who nominated Ford from a large pool of veterans being considered to win the prize.

Ford’s journey began last fall, when the administration specialist left the Marine Corps after 10 years of service. While in uniform, Ford saw duty in Yuma, Ariz., as well as San Diego, before returning to her final assignment at Quantico.

Discharged in August 2018, Ford moved to Woodbridge, where she became a full-time college student. She looked for work but had no success. She began reaching out to the Department of Veterans Affairs and other organizations for help, but her financial situation worsened.

Ford became homeless in December, living out of her car and occasionally staying in hotels. She eventually lost her car and remained on the streets for almost three months before finding a part-time job as an office coordinator in Dumfries. Around the same time, she moved in with a friend in Woodbridge.

From there, Ford discovered the Operation Renewed Hope Foundation, a veteran-friendly organization that just six weeks ago placed her and her son in their own apartment.

“They were homeless and we were able to find them housing where they could be stable,” said Joan Jennings-Staley, a case manager for the foundation.

The group negotiates substantial discounts with property owners willing to assist veterans by waiving security deposits and other advance payments. The foundation also assisted Ford by helping her set financial goals and provided resources and assistance to help her pay rent.

“I had thought about going back to the Marines; I have that option,” Ford said. “But these foundations helping veterans are wonderful, not everyone knows that they’re there, but they are there. If I can help someone in any way that’s maybe in the same situation that I’m in, I’d rather be in that position than to go back in.”

But even with a roof over her head and a part-time job, transportation was still an issue for Ford. Her only option was to use ride-hailing services and taxis to get to work and run errands, but the transportation costs were draining her finances.

“I would think, [Jaire] needs to go to the doctor; how am I going to do that?” Ford said. “There are moments of depression dealing with that, but having people around, or knowing that you can reach out to someone, that’s what really kept me afloat.”

Finally, after a series of small victories, Thursday brought a big, unexpected win for Ford — a new car.

“We want to take care of the veterans because sometimes they’re the forgotten ones, so we figured what better way than to give a car away to a veteran,” said Rocking Nissan general manager Steve Kaplaneris.

Kaplaneris said a panel of community leaders went through nominations from a social media campaign, and Ford was unanimously selected as the winner.

“I went limp,” said Ford, recalling her reaction. “All the feelings left my body, because when you’re going through these things ... you don’t know when you’re going to get a break, or if you can take a break, so just for a minute I was able to go into — oh my God, I have a car.”

Ford and her son received other surprises from members of the community.

Stafford-based G3 Community Services will pay Ford’s car insurance for a year. The nonprofit also gave Jaire a backpack full of school supplies, as well as a scooter.

“The little things that we do can never really make up for all the challenges and the sacrifices that veterans go through,” said Vernon Green Jr., founder and CEO of G3 Community Services. “When Steve [Kaplaneris] came to me about this, this was an easy choice.”

The Stafford-based Vets on Track Foundation, which provides home furnishings for needy veterans, first responders and others, will furnish Ford’s apartment.

As for the car, Ford said she has two priorities.

“First, I’m going to sit there and I’m going to look at it and caress it,” she said. “Then, we have some errands to run.”

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