Winner of NBC4 Facebook Mortgage Contest Takes Leap of Faith, Reaps Financial Stress Relief

Marine Corps veteran Neil Von Koehe has been unemployed for more than three years

Marine Corps veteran Neil Von Koehe plays guitar in his church band and is an amateur photographer who raises money for local schools near his Riverside home. Like many Americans, he is also unemployed.

When NBC4 offered to pay a Facebook fan’s rent or mortgage for a year, Neil and his wife Robin entered the contest, hoping that they might be the lucky winners.

"One person has to win and why not us," Robin said. "So, like him, I prayed: 'Lord, why not us?' "

The Von Koehe's story of financial struggle mirrors that of many Americans who have suffered reversals brought on by the Great Recession.

Van Koehe, 54, served in the Marine Corps from 1980 to 1988, first working in the legal office of his unit and then attending journeyman's school to become an electrician, after which he worked repairing equiment. He spent a year in Okinawa and the rest of his time at Camp Pendleton, until he injured his back while on the job.

"Electrician work can be very demanding physically," he said. "It took me some time to recover." Once he was healed, Von Koehe found work as an electrician in the private sector. After eight years, he suffered another on-the-job injury-- this time to his neck.

Van Koehe decided it was time to try a new career path and took courses to learn computer technology. He went to work providing technical support on the help desk for Fleetwood Enterprises, which makes motor homes and travel trailers.

He also enrolled in an online college degree program with Colorado Technical University, studying at night and on weekends, earning a 3.99 GPA and receiving a BA/BS in marketing management.

"A couple of times I was awake for 43 or 44 hours straight," he said. "It was a lot of work but it was worth it."  

Then, in early March of 2009, Van Koehe was laid off. The following day, Fleetwood filed for bankruptcy and Van Koehe embarked on a long and fruitless job search, submitting more than 500 resumes, for which he recieved a total of four phone calls and no offers.

"You'd think with my technical experience and a degree that I could get a job," he said. "Nope."

The Van Koehe's income was slashed in half -- they were left to manage on his unemployment benefits and her salary as a 911 database manager with the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

"Boy, it’s tough to get a job," he said "Especially in the Inland Empire."

Two years ago, frustrated with his lack of job prospects, Van Koehe and his wife scraped together $2,000 to invest in a business to sell and distribute a new type of non-toxic, fire-retardant paint additive.

"You mix it with your paint and put it on your house and your house doesn't burn," he said. But the inventor of the product turned out to be a charlatan. "He didn't have a patent for it. He didn't have a business license," Van Koehe said. "He lied to us so many times. We didn't make any money at all."

Even then, Van Koehe, said, he considered himself better off than many. He credits his faith with helping him through difficult times. When his unemployment benefits ran out, in May of 2011, a disability benefit he'd applied for finally came through.

"It's about a third of my salary at Fleetwood, but it does help," he said. "God is so good."

The Van Koehes managed to keep up house payments, but struggled to meet other financial obligations.

"By the grace of God, we’ve just had enough to get by with and pay our bills and have food on our table," he said.

During his long unemployment Van Koehe was not idle. He learned to play guitar and then used that skill to perform at convalescent homes he visited through a program at his church, Harvest Christian Fellowship.

He also joined the board of the Alvord Educational Foundation, a non-profit that raises funds for public schools in his community. He completely re-designed the organization's website, free of charge. At the end of the most recent school year the group granted $18,000 in college scholarships to 26 high school seniors, and gave about $28,000 in mini grants to teachers, coaches and music instructors for classroom supplies, sports equipment and instruments.

Sunday night, the Van Koehes tuned in to NBC4's late-might news to see who won the Facebook contest. When anchor Colleen Williams announced that Neil was the much-anticipated winner, the couple was stunned.

"Actually, I was falling asleep," Robin said. "But when they said his name I woke right up."

Neil added: "To see your name on TV is like, 'Oh my gosh, really?' "

Family friend Ginny Shaffer says the prize came at the perfect time.

"To know someone who’s received something so beneficial at this time in their lives just reaffirms your faith in everything," Shaffer said.

The Von Koehes say they will use what they save on their mortgage to help people at their church. Other than that, life goes on, they say, though there will be a little less financial pressure, at least for a while.

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