Florida home builder Cynthia Russell has been selected by the Presidential Inaugural Committee as the first of 10 grassroots supporters to attend the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. 

Russell, who owns Emerald Ventures in Newberry, Fla., got word Monday night that she'd been selected. By Tuesday morning, she was a media star, appearing on The Today Show. While contest entrants were encouraged to make a donation to offset the expense of the inauguration, it wasn't required to enter. 

"I thought, 'I'll send $20 to help with the inauguration,'" she says, "but I thought, 'They'll probably give (the tickets) to someone who gave $50,000.' I have absolutely no idea how I won."

Russell was selected based on her answer to an essay question posed by the transition team: "What does this inauguration mean to you?" Her response: “I’m a single woman who has been building homes for over 18 years. I’ve supported myself and have been able to help out my mother from time to time. Now I find myself wondering how much longer I can hold on and be able to pay my bills and keep the doors open for business. Barack gives me hope. Hope that 2009 will truly bring change to Americans who find themselves in this mess with me.”

Like most builders, Russell says business was booming in 2004 and 2005, but has been extremely slow since then. (She also owns a home staging company and has her real estate license.) "I keep thinking, 'Do I hold on until things recover?'" Russell says. "I've been holding on for so long. I can't wait another year to make money." The only thing that is saving her right now, she says, is a fully rented apartment complex that she built a few years ago.

Still, after November's election, she briefly considered trying to attend the inaugural festivities. But she couldn't afford the trip, making her selection even sweeter. "It's the most exciting inauguration in my lifetime," Russell says. "I'm so excited I get to go."

Her trip to the historic festivities will include airfare, hotel accommodations and tickets for herself and a guest for the welcome ceremony, the president-elect’s swearing in, the inaugural parade, and his Neighborhood Inaugural Ball. She says she is most excited about attending the swearing-in and admits she is wondering what to wear to an inaugural ball. This will be her first trip to Washington.

Her guest? Her boyfriend, who had been a McCain supporter "until the very end, and then he voted for Obama," says Russell.

Pat Curry is senior editor, sales and marketing, at BUILDER magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Washington, DC, Ocala, FL, Orlando, FL.