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Utility worker Maria never expected that a routine visit to check on an electricity meter at a Hopelink housing facility in Kenmore would bring her to tears. It had been years since she and her young family had moved into the shelter during a very dark time in her life, but on that afternoon last fall, the emotions came flooding back as it if were yesterday.
Maria remembered the cold, rainy night in 1998 when she and her husband Eli drove into the parking lot with nothing but a few bags of clothes. Her two children – toddlers at the time – were crying in the back seat, wondering when they were going back home.
Maria remembered how scared she was that night, not knowing what was going to happen to her family.
“We were at rock bottom,” Maria said. “I remember walking through the front door of the shelter, pulling our bags in. I remember thinking, 'we're responsible for these little kids, and I have no idea how we're going to make it.'”
It was not a situation Maria would have even imagined when she was a young mom in a two-income household, feeling secure and optimistic about her future. “We were living a great life,” Maria said. But on that night 14 years ago, everything changed.
Maria and her older sister grew up in Seattle with parents who loved them, but were rarely home. Both worked a lot, and on weekends, the family spent time at a church that evolved into something of a cult, with alarming practices that Maria says launched her into teenage rebellion.
She became the stereotypical mean girl; putting up a tough exterior, getting into fights, and numbing her pain with drugs. At 17, Maria joined the Navy, looking for structure and direction. Her time in the service helped her get back on track, and by 21, she was married with a son and daughter and settling into a new life in Kirkland.
The family was doing well enough that when Maria's company closed its doors, they decided they could afford for her to be a stay-at-home mom for a little while. Then Eli ran into medical problems and lost his job too.
Both looked for work, without success. Behind on their rent, the landlord began the eviction process. For several weeks, every time the phone rang or someone knocked on the door, Maria felt a twinge of panic in the pit of her stomach. One night, the family's worst fears came to pass. There was a knock on the door, and standing on the porch were two uniformed sheriffs, telling Maria and her family to leave immediately. One of them had tears in his eyes when he saw the tiny kids, but there was nothing he could do to help.
They asked if the family had anywhere to go, and offered to take them to stay with family or friends. But there were no options, and Maria and her husband and children drove away into the darkness with no idea where they might sleep that night.
Eli stopped at a pay phone and started making calls, until he was referred to Hopelink. The person he spoke with told him to come to the shelter, and that she would find a way to help them. That night, Hopelink kept the young family from becoming homeless.
Looking back, Maria says she feels her life didn't really start until that night.
“Until we we went through that, until we moved in and got the help we needed, I didn't realize anyone could care that much. That night changed everything,” she said. Maria had learned as a child to be tough and strong and go it alone. That night, realizing there were people willing to help, was the beginning of a new life for her.
Eli was soon diagnosed with additional medical problems and the young mother knew she had to step up and find a way to support her family. She enrolled in job-readiness programs and landed a customer service position through a temp agency. Ambitious and hard working, her career took off, and the family relocated to Utah for a time, where Maria was charged with opening a new call center.
She says the support she received during a difficult time in her life gave her the confidence she needed to survive, get a job, and go to work every day – and ultimately fueled her success.
“I've never been around so many people who truly wanted to help,” Maria said.
Today, Maria is a utility worker who does maintenance on gas meters; work that brought her quite by accident to the shelter where she had once lived. The children who had huddled in the back seat of the car that rainy night so long ago are now happy, healthy teenagers. And Maria is committed to giving back, volunteering as much as she can. She is starting a soup kitchen at her church and she and her 4-year-old daughter make scarves together to donate to people they see living on the streets.
Maria says what she went through so many years ago was a very humbling experience, but she will never forget the caring people who were there for her when her family had nowhere to go.
“If those programs weren't there, I literally don't know where we would be today,” Maria said. “I really have no idea. We would be sleeping in our car, and I don't know where we would have gone after that. That experience changed me. It changed my life.”