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“I wanted to be Picasso. Picasso and Joni Mitchell.” Leslye Lewis laughed. It was the 70s and the Bellevue teenager had big dreams, growing up in an ambitious family that always encouraged her to succeed.
“My grandmother taught me to color outside the lines – I thought I could do anything,” she said. So enrolling at the University of Washington to study oil painting seemed a natural step, if not exactly the most pragmatic career preparation.
A new friend she met in school invited her to Hawaii, so Leslye took a quarter off from her studies and the two young women lived on a Waikiki beach for several months. When she returned to the Northwest, her dad suggested she apply for work with a colleague of his – a dentist. He was looking for an assistant, and Leslye got the job. She was 20 years old, and she never looked back.
“I've been in teeth my whole life,” she said. “And I've always gotten every job I've ever applied for.”
Although she continued to paint and has sold some of her artwork over the years, Leslye would work steadily in the dental field for decades.
In her late 20s, she married an old friend and the couple had a daughter, Whitney. They divorced amicably when Whitney was two and a half years old, and Leslye became a single mom, continuing to work while paying for daycare.
In 2005, she lost her job, and for the first time, struggled to find something else. A part-time position at a social services agency lasted a few years, but unfortunately, she was so successful at streamlining the office procedures, she organized her way right out of a job.
The 20-hour-per-week income helped keep her afloat but didn't pay enough to make ends meet, and Leslye's savings dwindled. And when that job ended, she had only the remnants of her savings account coupled with about $100 per week in unemployment compensation to get by.
This time, looking for work brought a rude awakening: There were no offers. Leslye threw herself into the job search, turning to the state's WorkSource program for leads, updating her resume, networking, filling out applications. Open to anything, she still focused on the dental industry where she had always found work in the past. But even entry-level jobs were out of reach.
“They thought I had too much experience,” Leslye said. “I had done consulting work in the past. I had years of experience. They thought I would ask for the world. Or they thought I was going to retire soon.”
Leslye was in her 50s and stunned to realize her age was an issue. She revamped her resume again to hide some of her years of top-level experience. Still nothing.
“I always paid my bills – always,” Leslye said. “I will not eat before I will not pay my bills. I was raised that way. I was raised that you don't ask for help; you pull yourself up by your boot straps. You do it yourself.”
It was November 2010 and getting cold outside. Leslye had cut back on everything she could, pinching pennies, cutting coupons, shopping sales. But she was suddenly faced with not being able to turn on the heat. She couldn't afford groceries. A friend told her she needed to ask for help; an idea Leslye railed against at first.
“When reality really bit, that this is what's going on, you do not have money, you cannot just create a job out of thin air, it's not happening,” she said, “I just had to swallow my pride and say, 'hey, I need help.'
“Picking up the phone to dial (the Hopelink Bellevue Center) was the hard part – it felt like it weighed 500 pounds. But once I made the phone call, someone was there to help. And I was respected... I felt respected. I didn't lose my dignity. I didn't feel like anyone was looking down on me. I really felt like Hopelink was there to help.”
Leslye qualified for energy assistance and also visited the food bank.
“I (had) never needed help. I never thought I would need to ask for help,” she said. “I was shocked that Hopelink was able to help me that much.”
In the summer of 2011, one of the dentists Leslye had worked for in the past called her out of the blue, and asked her to come back and manage the front office. The dentist has a long-term plan that includes steady work for Leslye as long as she needs to stay there. Leslye is humbled by the realization that she could be living in her car instead of back on her feet.
“I got off the pity pot pretty fast when I looked at how things could have been,” she said. “I was fortunate. I didn't lose everything, and I am grateful. But that was enough for me – the realization that you're just a paycheck away from needing help.”
Leslye says that time has even helped her look at the world in a new way, with a bit more understanding and compassion for those who need help to get by.
“I've learned to not make assumptions, and to treat everyone the same way,” she said, “because you just never know what they're going through. And you never know when a kind word will make someone's day.
“Every day is truly a gift for me, and I know I'll be okay,” she said. “Hopelink was awesome.”