26-year-old Sarah grew up in Baltimore City and Baltimore County. By her own admission, she preferred the county. It was safer and quieter and had better schools. She began high school at Overlea, a successful public school with a good reputation. But when her parents split up, she moved back to the city with her father. This decision forced her to switch schools. She had her first child, a daughter, when she was 16, which delayed her high school graduation by a year. Eventually, after night school and Saturday classes, Sarah graduated from Southwestern High School (a failing city school, which was ultimately closed). Sarah’s mother didn’t see her daughter graduate. She died of an accidental drug overdose the same week Sarah turned 18.
After high school, Sarah attended the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC), but dropped out for financial reasons. In 2007, Sarah married her long time boyfriend, Antonio, and three years ago they gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. For a while, they all lived together as a family – Sarah, her daughter, Antonio, and their son – with her father in his rented house. Sarah and Antonio contributed to the rent from the money they made at various part-time and retail jobs. There was just one problem. The money Sarah and Antonio turned over to her father for rent… was not getting to the landlord. Sarah’s father was pocketing it. Sarah had no idea. She assumed her father was paying the rent and paying it on time. She found out that wasn’t the case the day they were all evicted. The only thing they had in the world was each other and now they would have to split up. Antonio went to a men’s shelter. Sarah and the kids went to a shelter for women and children. Sarah described the shelter as one big dorm room where the beds were lined up in tight rows, leaving no room for personal effects or privacy. Her son took it the hardest, missing his father and crying himself to sleep every night. Sarah worried that his crying would disturb the other boarders.
Sarah had hit rock bottom. It was time for a change.
Time for fewer doors to close and more doors to open. Time to move forward instead of falling behind. Time to depend less on others and more on herself. She sought the advice of a job coach at the shelter who referred her to Caroline Center.
Sometimes…what seems like a curse, can turn into a blessing.
While still living at the shelter, Sarah applied and was accepted into the Caroline Center Pharmacy Technology program. She studied every minute she could; at school before class and at the shelter after the kids had gone to bed. When she was reunited with Antonio and they moved into Salvation Army sponsored transitional housing together, she found a quiet place in the laundry room to study. On warm days, she took her kids to a nearby park where she studied while they played. At Southwestern, she had not been pushed to study. At Caroline Center, she was. Her hard work paid off. Upon graduation, Giant Pharmacy and Wal-Mart Pharmacy ended up in a sort of bidding war for Sarah. Sarah went with Wal-Mart. Today, she works there full-time as a pharmacy technician and loves it.
“Just knowing how much I’m helping people, means a lot to me,” Sarah confided. “I find it really rewarding.”
In 6 months she will be eligible for health benefits, which will assist greatly with the family budget. She doesn’t yet own a car so she gets to work every day by bus, allowing 2 hours for the commute each way. Her workday ends at 9PM and she is generally back home by 10:30. Too late to tuck the kids into bed, but not too late to kiss them good night. Antonio does the best he can as a stay at home dad but Sarah’s daughter, now 9, misses her mom when she’s at work. It’s not perfect but Sarah knows she is setting a good example for her children. Despite all the sacrifices, Sarah wouldn’t have it any other way. Just last month she, Antonio, and the children moved out of transitional housing and into their own home. She now rents a house on a quiet street in Baltimore County. Near the water. Next to a park. Down the street from a good school. It is a small house -only 4 rooms – but for now at least, it is all theirs.
“My older brother told me how ‘grown up’ I sound now. That’s ’cause of Caroline Center. They taught me how to be on my own. Before now, I wasn’t. I didn’t know how.”
I asked Sarah if she would recommend Caroline Center to others.
“For sure,” she said, and stared off for a moment, reflecting back on the past few years. “Caroline Center turned my life around.”
” What would you tell the women currently enrolled there?”
”I’d tell them, ‘Take advantage of everything they have to offer.’ Life skills, computer skills, interview techniques, resume writing, financial planning…. It all helped me. And talk to your counselor. You know Sister Kennedy? She was my counselor. I met with her every week. She helped me the most. I really miss her… so, you know, ‘take advantage of everything’.”
“That’s good advice.”
“What’s your dream for 5 years from now?” I asked.
“Home ownership,” Sarah answered without hesitation. “Something with my name on the deed.” She had clearly given this a lot of thought. A house represents stability and security. It’s home base. Safe haven. The place you go back to at the end of a hard day. The place you help your kids with homework and the place you tuck them in at night. It’s the place you hang coats and hats and family photos of moments still fresh. And the place where you sit around the table wondering where the time went and how the kids got so big. A house is a repository of memories and a launching pad for dreams.
“The hardest thing in my life was being homeless. Feelin’ like I wasn’t takin’ care of my kids,” Sarah explained. I’ve talked to some people about what it would take to buy a house. What I’d have to save. How to make it happen,” Sarah continued. “And if I do? Make that happen? Then I want to leave it to my kids one day. Home is where the heart is, right? I want to leave them my heart.”
After our interview, I dropped Sarah off in front of her house, where she was greeted with hugs from Antonio and their kids. It was a beautiful scene. More than a few rugs had been pulled out from under Sarah in her young life. More than a few times she found herself on the wrong side of a closed door. It would be understandable if she’d gotten discouraged. But as I watched them, I couldn’t help think that if Sarah had never been evicted from her father’s house, she might never have learned about Caroline Center. Might never have turned her life around. Might not be heading to her own front door at that very moment.
I waited as Sarah and her family enter the house and waved goodbye. Then, the door quietly shut behind them. Only this time, they were on the right side, safely inside.
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