A pretty young woman of 26, with slate-blue eyes, auburn hair, and a smattering of freckles, Tabitha has already experienced enough setbacks and challenges to last a lifetime. She grew up on the near west side of Cleveland in a dysfunctional family that provided little meaningful parental supervision. At age 16, she gave birth to her first child, a daughter, and had two more children before she turned 21. None of her children’s fathers provide much, if any, financial support.
In June of 2012, Tabitha moved with her young family into her mother’s rented home in Medina County. Although Tabitha and her mother had a rocky relationship, her mother needed back surgery. And Tabitha had agreed to help while she recuperated. Just eight months later, however, Tabitha’s mother gave up the apartment and moved in with another daughter, leaving Tabitha and her children homeless. Tabitha had no high school diploma, no driver’s license, no car, and a minimum-wage job working 30 hours a week at McDonalds.
Who Is ALICE?
While Medina County is consistently ranked as one of the wealthiest per capita counties in Ohio, a recent state-wide, United Way-sponsored study showed that 8% of our households meet the federal poverty threshold, and another 20% fall within a group known as ALICE, an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.
ALICE households are typically comprised of hardworking individuals and their dependents who live paycheck-to-paycheck and have little or no savings. Like Tabitha, ALICE households, are just one life calamity or serious illness away from financial instability. But because they are working, ALICE households often do not meet the income thresholds to qualify for state or federal aid.
Just to be clear, 28%—an eye-opening 18,695 households—are either living in poverty or living on the edge right here in Medina County.
Grit and Determination
Although there is no stand-alone homeless shelter anywhere in the county similar to what you might find in larger urban areas, Tabitha found temporary shelter for her young family through a nonprofit, church-based program known as Operation Homes. She spent the next three months living a week at a time at one of the program’s 18 participating churches that offer housing on a rotating basis to homeless families. Operation Homes provides transportation, meals, life skills programming in the evening, and a place to stay for the night. Families must be out by 6 am and can return at 5 pm. Many of the churches participating in Operation Homes do not have bathing or laundry facilities.
“I carried my clothes from a church near downtown Medina to a laundromat clear down on North Court street,” Tabitha recalls matter-of-factly. “And I would sometimes bath my kids in a sink.”
Life was not easy during her Operation Homes period, but the experience made Tabitha determined to get her life back on track for the sake of her children. She never lost hope or a sense of gratitude for the assistance she received, especially from a very special advocate and friend, Beth Ewing.
Beth is one of three life coaches for United Way’s Employing Medina County (EMC) program, which launched in 2014 to address two persistent problems in the county:
- a lack of reliable, skilled workers to fill open positions at area businesses, and
- a gap in services available to help low-income residents become and remain financially stable.
EMC uses a comprehensive life-coaching model designed to remove barriers to employment, such as lack of transportation, child care, housing, and adequate work skills. EMC’s clients, known as members, are assigned a life coach who works one-on-one to set goals, and help navigate the network of social services and educational opportunities available. A specially designed curriculum is used during structured classroom workshops that cover topics such as resume writing, interviewing skills, professionalism and work ethics, budgeting, and financial decision-making, among many other topics.
EMC’s life coaches partner with more than 40 health and human services organizations, including area faith-based programs like Operation Homes, Ohio Means Jobs workforce development, mental health providers, Legal Aid Society, Medina County Health Department, and the Medina County Career Center. Although the original goal of EMC was to help clients achieve family-sustaining, rather than minimum-wage, employment, experience working with this demographic shows that the issues these families face can be deep-seated and difficult to overcome. A more comprehensive approach was needed that allowed EMC’s members to reach out to their coach as needed, even after completing the curriculum and obtaining family-sustaining employment.
To date, more than 122 Medina County residents have successfully completed the curriculum, and another 67 residents are currently enrolled in the EMC program. Seventy-six percent are employed and on a career path to self-sufficiency, and another 36% are in some kind of post-secondary schooling or training.
One Success at a Time
With Beth’s help and encouragement, Tabitha continued to juggle her kids, her job at McDonalds, and moving from church-to-church with Operation Homes. She placed herself on the waiting list for subsidized housing, and began working with a tutor from the nonprofit literacy organization, Project Learn, who helped prepare her to take the GED exam. She also began working on obtaining a driver’s license with help from Beth, who took Tabitha out to practice in her own vehicle. Tabitha soon had a driver’s license, passed her GED exam, and was offered the use of a virtually rent-free apartment (client pays the electric bill) through another church-based program and EMC community partner: St. Matthew’s Transitional Housing. Each success helped her self-confidence grow.
“I was always told that I would not succeed or amount to anything,” she says, clearly pleased with the progress she has made.
Today, Tabitha is living in a rented home in Brunswick. She furthered her education by taking State Tested Nursing Assistant (STNA) courses, and she has received her certification. The STNA certification, which required 75 hours of combined classroom, lab, and clinical training, enabled her to find work in area assisted-living/nursing home facilities. Her children are attending Brunswick City Schools and doing well. Her daughter, now 10, loves to read. Tabitha’s rocky relationship with her family continues to cause her pain that she struggles to deal with, but she has solid friendships and even a “Beth approved” new man in her life.
With Beth’s continued support, encouragement, and help, Tabitha has now set her sights on obtaining her bachelor’s degree in social work and counseling. When asked what advice she might have for others who are struggling, she said: “Don’t ever, ever give up. There are people who can help you reach your goals and achieve your dreams."