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It’s 2:30 in the afternoon and single mom Michelle Chappon is finally taking a shower. She’s been up since 5:30 a.m. and has already made breakfast and lunch for herself and her 10-year-old son, Robbie, gotten him on the school bus, and put in some time as a high school para-educator. On this day, she has a brief break before Robbie gets home at 3 p.m.
Mid-afternoon is when Michelle’s second shift begins – driving Robbie to a therapy appointment, preparing dinner and working with him for a while before heading for bed.
Although the family has a TV – an old, bulky model – it’s rarely turned on. Robbie has autism, and in Michelle’s house, nothing is more important than encouraging her son, guiding him and listening to ensure he is always okay.
When finally she falls into bed and goes to sleep, Michelle says she sometimes wakes up with her mind racing.
“I try to just go back to sleep… but a mind racing at 500 miles per hour takes a while to slow down,” she said.
Caring for her son is a 24/7 undertaking. And Michelle says, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
A Washington native who has spent more than two decades in the workforce, Michelle is today living a life far from her childhood dream, which included a partner and enough land for horses and a garden of fresh fruits and vegetables. Michelle grew up that way, and always assumed she would follow the same path.
She and her twin sister both earned soccer scholarships in high school and attended George Mason University in Virginia. After a year, Michelle switched to fast pitch softball and moved closer to home, studying fitness and sports management at Central Washington University. Faced with a two-year waiting list for the program’s required practicum, Michelle went to work – holding a number of responsible positions with a soft drink company.
When her mother was diagnosed with cancer, Michelle moved back home to Snohomish to take care of her; working the graveyard shift in order to drive her to doctor’s appointments. Her mother passed away at 51, when Michelle and her sister were 31 years old.
Robbie was born a few years later. Her son seemed to develop normally until 13 months, then started regressing. As time went on, the need for specialized care grew. Michelle quickly learned that childcare for someone with special needs is extraordinarily expensive – when it can be found at all.
So the two lived for a short time with Michelle’s sister, but the fiercely self-reliant mom knew that situation was untenable long-term, and she was determined to make it on her own as much as possible.
“I’m a really independent person, so having to rely on someone else is really hard for me,” she said. “I will fight tooth and nail to stay independent.”
Michelle studied to be a medical transcriptionist so she could work from home, but concentration was difficult with a young child in need of so much care.
She eventually found fulltime employment as a nanny; working for families that were okay with her bringing her son along.
When Robbie started school, Michelle gained a bit more flexibility in the hours she was available to work and was able to find positions that paid a better wage. Although still limited to a five-hour day that aligns with Robbie’s school schedule, Michelle is today a para-educator working with special needs kids. When her son enters middle school, she hopes to further expand her hours.
Meanwhile, Michelle is grateful for Hopelink. Although she struggles daily to make ends meet, she earns too much money to qualify for food stamps, so the Hopelink food bank is a lifeline at times.
As with many who turn to Hopelink in a time of need, Michelle had never before asked for assistance.
“It’s hard for me,” she said. “I’ve always worked. It’s hard for me to ask for help.”
Her first visit to Hopelink’s Redmond food bank provided both food and – as it turned out – moral support.
“When I came to Hopelink, things totally changed for me,” she said.
“Even in the chaos of all that was going on, having my son with me and having to find my I.D. to sign up, Hopelink still made it welcoming. (Hopelink staffer) Shirley made that day a lot easier for me to swallow.”
Michelle visits the food bank every two weeks, and also has gotten help with utility bills. And with an already tight monthly budget, Hopelink’s school supplies program has been a godsend as Robbie heads back to school.
“I work and I pay full rent,” Michelle said. “I get paid once a month, and I sit down and I make it all work. Rent, food, gas … if there’s anything left, it goes to Robbie.”
For the young family, “making it work” means living in a tiny Redmond apartment.
“If paying my own way means living in a place like this, so be it. Robbie calls this place home, and that’s all that matters.”
A commitment to self-sufficiency runs deep with Michelle, and she credits Hopelink with helping her manage in the midst of challenges she never could have predicted.
“Without Hopelink, I wouldn’t be able to live independently,” she said. “I just wouldn’t.”
Michelle – who uses a basic cell phone that is at least four years old, wishes she could afford coffee at Starbucks and can’t remember the last time she bought anything new for herself – considers herself fortunate. She is convinced “it’s all about your attitude.”
“I am blessed,” she said. “I count my blessings every single day … things could be so much worse.”