Congressional Award Winner Denise Wilhite-Thomas: Saving One Family at a Time

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Congressional award winner and housing advocate Denise Wilhite-Thomas. Pictured with U.S Representative for California’s 13th congressional district Barbara Lee (D-CA 13th District) 

Housing Advocate Denise Wilhite-Thomas had an interesting journey on her way to being the recipient of three Congressional Awards for her exemplary work helping struggling homeowners retain their homes. A former Real Estate Owned (REO) Vice President whose resume included two of the top lending institutions in the nation, Denise was the executive in charge of managing the bank’s properties after foreclosures had taken place. Denise, who worked as an REO specialist for nearly a decade, found that she was not immune to the hardships and suffering of homeowners faced with foreclosure. Many families with children, parents, and pets were finding themselves with no place to live, and no one to champion their defense.

Ms. Wilhite-Thomas discovered that the housing crisis did not discriminate and crossed all economic lines, race, and gender. From the wealthiest million-dollar homes in Blackhawk to lower-income families in Richmond, California.

The emotional toll and level of stress she faced on a daily basis, led her to pursue the other side of the ‘real estate coin’, i.e, switching careers from handling REO foreclosures, to underwriting, originating and approving loans for families who qualified. Denise found this side of the process far more rewarding.

Congressional award given to housing advocate Denise Wilhite-Thomas and Operation Reach1 in recognition for outstanding service to the community.

What makes Denise so extraordinary, is that in March 2010 she and her husband fell victim to real estate predators and lost their home to foreclosure fraud. Denise turned that injustice into a mission by becoming an advocate for families desperately trying to keep their homes. Half of her clients are Hispanic who are the most vulnerable, as most mortgage contracts are in English, a language they are not fluent in.

To date, Ms. Thomas and her firm Operation Reach are responsible for returning over 30 homes back to families who had lost them to foreclosure. These are actual foreclosure rescissions with the biggest banking and lending institutions in the United States including Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi Mortgage, Indy Mac, Fannie Mae, Sun Trust, and PNCDenise identified major foreclosure errors and missteps on the lenders part, which turned out to be the catalyst in which the homes were returned back to the families who owned them.

Denise has been recognized with multiple Congressional Awards from Congresswomen Barbara Lee  (Northern California) District 9, Oakland, CA and  Judy Chu (Southern California) 32 District, Baldwin Park, CA.  Congresswoman Barbara Lee presented Denise and Operation Reach on March 25th, 2010 with the Congressional Award for Home Preservation.​

Congresswoman Judy Chu presented Denise with two separate  Certificate of Congressional Recognition Awards, one on November 17th, 2010  on behalf of her “Tireless efforts to help our constituents preserve their homes”. Again on May 21st, 2012 “In recognition of your high standards and excellent and outstanding achievement and dedication in support to the Hispanic community”.

In 2015, a federal grand jury in San Francisco indicted the 11 real estate investors who were responsible for taking Denise’s home. The two persons personally responsible for defrauding Denise and her husband are John Shiells and Doug Ditmer. They were indicted on multiple charges of bid-rigging and fraud schemes at foreclosure auctions in Northern California, according to the U.S. Department of Justice officials on Thursday.

It was this single event that led Denise to ‘switch sides,’ and fight for the underdog. According to her, the loss of her home caused an epiphany, as she states, “If they ( the banks ) could fraudulently take my home from me, an underwriter and former REO Vice President, what chance does the average homeowner have?”

Since 2010 this has become Denise’s full-time mission. Thus, Operation Reach1 Inc. has been champion for change regarding,  the California real estate laws and has worked closely with attorney Ted Mermin, Executive Director, Center for Consumer Law and Economic Justice where he presides as professor of law at Bolt Hall, UC Berkeley.

“This work is so rewarding. Each family energizes me in a unique and special way. I connect with them and they with me. They trust me literally with their lives, which compels me to maintain the most stringent and honorable standards in my work with them. Even though over the course of the past ten years I have saved and rescinded over forty homes from foreclosure, unfortunately, not everyone can have their home returned, but if I can impart some knowledge to my clients moving forward, we both consider it well worth the effort.”