September Story of the Month: A Grateful American!

Yanelly waited in line at her city’s food bank for hours, often to be turned away. She would walk back to her family’s home to face her younger brothers and sisters empty-handed. At 25 years old this was not the life she had imagined for herself. Yanelly had dreams of getting married, starting a family and even going to college, but this was Nicaragua, 1982. The Contra rebel armies were raging civil war against the Nicaraguan Sandinista government, and citizens like Yanelly were caught in the middle.

With a bit of luck, Yanelly was able to immigrate to the United States and settle in Los Angeles at the age of 26. A few years later the first of Yanelly’s dreams came true when she met her husband and they married in 1986. Living in LA as new immigrants was never easy. Together they raised five children working low wage jobs. Every month was a struggle to pay the rent, but somehow they made it all work. They instilled in their children the value of an education–though this was one dream that Yanelly was never able to achieve for herself. Still, she was a proud mother when several of her children graduated with their own college degrees.

In June 2016, thirty years after coming to live in Los Angeles, Yanelly still had one more dream to pursue: her US citizenship. Even after all this time, it was difficult for Yanelly to know how to begin. She brought up her desire for citizenship to Evangelina, LifeSTEPS’ Director of Social Services at Bellflower Apartments where Yanelly lives with her husband. Evangelina provided her with all the necessary handouts on the process of becoming a naturalized US citizen and each time they met they worked through the information, Evangelina translating from English to Spanish as needed.

First, Yanelly’s fee waiver was submitted and accepted. Then she began the process to study US history in preparation for her test. For several months Evangelina provided encouragement to Yanelly and together they discussed the history questions in English. In February 2017 Yanelly received a letter from US Immigration with a date for her interview in March 2017. All the months of preparation with Evangelina paid off–Yanelly passed her exam in March and took her oath of citizenship in April 2017!

Yanelly’s entire family is rejoicing in her accomplishment! Evangelina has already noticed Yanelly appears more self-confident. Yanelly says it is like a huge weight has been lifted from her. She is no longer caught in limbo–she is finally home.

“I am very grateful and honored to have met Evangelina who helped me accomplish the dream of every immigrant. I want to thank LifeSTEPS also for being present in our community. My family thanks you for all the effort, time and resources that were given to me during this process. I am proud to have accomplished this dream!” Yanelly

May Story of the Month: The Right Impact, at the Right Time

Editor’s note: This story is about resilience.  All of us at some point in our lives have faced adversity–this special family from the heart of California was determined not to let it hold them back.

Eva and her daughter Rochelle

Eva firmly taped the box closed and stacked it on top of several others against her living room wall. She let out a huge sigh of relief–this was the last box she had to pack. Soon the boxes and all her family’s belongings would be loaded in the moving truck and headed to their new house.  Earlier that day Eva and her husband Diego had signed the mortgage papers on a home of their own!

It was only three years ago when their family made the move from Texas to California’s Central Valley and were grateful to find an apartment at AMCAL’s affordable community, Villa Escondido. It was a good decision for Eva and Diego, and their adult son Alberto and eleven year old daughter Rochelle*. In California Diego found stable work as a farm laborer, and the children better opportunities in education. Eva and Diego were grateful to find an affordable home; however, affordability was only one benefit from living at Villa Escondido. Soon Eva and her family would have a long list of what they loved about their new community.  For the first time in many years life was going well for them.

Then a letter from the IRS arrived in the mail. (This is rarely good news.) And for Eva and Diego it was the dreaded news that they owed back taxes. Living paycheck to paycheck didn’t leave any extra to pay the IRS and Eva worried this would put them behind on their rent and in jeopardy of losing their apartment. Eva was frantic with worry until she met with Leni, her LifeSTEPS’ Director of Social Services at Villa Escondido and together they worked out a plan to pay the taxes. As part of the plan, LifeSTEPS approved $400 of financial assistance through LifeSTEPS’ Craig’s Fund. This allowed the family to clear the back taxes they owed and still pay their rent on time. As a condition of the assistance, Eva began meeting with Leni weekly to develop a family budget and learn more about how to create a solid financial plan for her family. Within a short time the family was back on track and even began to build a savings account.

The next hurdle to overcome came in the summer of 2016. Eva was called to Mexico to help with a family emergency since her father was ill. Her son, at 26 years old, stayed home to care for his younger sister and her husband stayed to work the crops. When she returned her husband was barely recognizable to her. In just one month’s time, he had lost 40 pounds and was in constant pain. Eva was in total shock. Diego went through multiple tests as his doctors tried to explain his failing health. Unfortunately, he continued to lose weight and grow weaker by the day.

After many trips to the hospital, Diego was finally given a diagnosis, a tumor on his pancreas. Eva was devastated–the weight of this burden fell on her alone, but for the sake of her children and husband, Eva kept up a good face.  Inside she was terrified of what could happen. This time, she turned to LifeSTEPS for emotional support. Leni met with her one on one each week and allowed Eva to have a space to open up and share her fears.  Sometimes she just cried. The time with Leni gave her the strength she needed to not give up hope.

It took consultations with several specialists before Diego finally found a doctor willing to perform surgery to remove his tumor. The surgery was successful and the doctor believed Diego would make a full recovery. Eva again cried with Leni–this time, happy tears as they celebrated the good news.

The move to Villa Escondido proved to be truly life changing for Eva and her family. Through LifeSTEPS Eva took all the tools Leni gave them: financial planning, budgeting and even how to manage her stress and Eva crafted a better future for her family. With practical and timely support Leni helped Eva navigate the system to obtain disability benefits for Diego and helped Alberto obtain employment so he could also contribute to the family budget. (It is actually through her son’s income that the family is able to purchase a home together.)

This family’s remarkable resilience and determination amazingly helped them grow more confident through each obstacle they faced. Eva and her family rose above unforeseen circumstances that could have easily caused them to lose hope, but instead they are moving forward and focusing on the positive.

Leni is sad to see them go; however, she knows without a doubt, Eva and her family were brought to Villa Escondido at exactly the right time in their lives.  The impact LIfeSTEPS had on Eva and her family is undeniable. And, in this situation Leni shared that the impact is mutual, “It’s been such a pleasure working with Eva. She exemplifies what being a woman of faith is and that has blessed me. To see her go through each ordeal and still have a smile on her face has impacted my life greatly.”

*Names have been changed

April Story of the Month: Learning to Smile Again

Gabriel* came home from the LifeSTEPS After School Program (ASP) talking a mile a minute! He dropped his backpack by the door, exclaimed all his homework was done in his loudest “inside” voice, and hurried to the kitchen to share the highlights of his day with his mom and grandma. His words were mostly in Spanish with a sprinkling of English as he told them about the new friend he had met in ASP.

His grandmother, Martina*, could not help but smile and think to herself just how much her grandson had changed over the last two years — in fact, she was beginning to notice she too had changed.

When Martina came to live at the Orchard View Apartments in Holtville, California, she felt lost. She and her adult daughter had moved with her daughter’s two young children from Mexicali, Mexico, after losing her son in a tragic car accident. Still numb with grief and now living in a new culture, Martina’s grief overwhelmed her life and sunk her into depression. She had left her old life behind in Mexico — but taken her sadness with her.

A slight crack of sunshine in Martina’s otherwise dark world came at Thanksgiving. Her daughter had noticed the flyer for Orchard View’s Thanksgiving potluck in the laundry room and convinced her mother to take a chance and attend. At the potluck, the family stuck close together — listening to the friendly chatter of their neighbors, but only as outside observers. This caught the attention of Araceli, Director of Social Services at Orchard View, and she decided to reach out.

That simple act of hospitality from Araceli was the first step for Martina to find her way out of her depression. Immediately she felt comfortable talking to Araceli and even opened up to share about the pain she was feeling since her son’s passing.  Martina took another leap and attended a LifeSTEPS health class. She found herself interested in learning more about living a healthy lifestyle — taking home tips to her family on healthy eating and exercise. Martina chatted with neighbors and began to notice the children playing in the playground. Their laughter brought sweet memories of her son as a child and instead of tears, she smiled.

Martina smiles now at Gabriel, standing next to her chopping vegetables. He is looking more and more like his uncle. Since attending the After School Program, Gabriel’s confidence has soared; his grades have improved and most importantly, he feels connected to his new home.

Martina is grateful for the new start in her life. She is grateful for the bright future her grandchildren have; for friends and neighbors to talk to and she is grateful for the love and memories of her son she brought with her to her new home.

*Names have been changed.

Lifelong Learning in the Digital Age

For older adults, learning computer skills can be like learning a foreign language. It’s not their native tongue and at first all those tech phrases, like mousepad, cut/paste, and “right click,” seem like nonsensical babble. That’s what Don thought the first time he came to a LifeSTEPS computer class.

Don, unlike many older adults living in affordable housing, actually did own a computer. Most of the time it sat on his desk in his living room, untouched–a foreign object in his otherwise comfortable living room. Every so often he would turn it on, making sure it still worked, but that is as far as his skills would take him. The only purpose it served was to remind Don just how out of touch he had become with the rapidly evolving world around him. It left Don feeling old and obsolete.

LifeSTEPS’ Director of Social Services, Evangelina, encouraged Don to come to a computer class. At first Don was reluctant to show up; he had really enjoyed LifeSTEPS’ social gatherings–the Walk-a-thon, Bingo, and Brain Teaser Game Nights–but computers? Computers represented all he didn’t know–a mysterious alien land he wasn’t sure he could conquer. Evangelina was persuasive and eventually wore his resistance down. When the new computer classes started Don was ready to swallow his pride, and his fear, and give it a go.

To his amazement it didn’t take long before Don was confidently using Microsoft programs, email, and typing on the keyboard. He was a diligent learner–he took each new skill he learned in class, went home, dusted off the computer, and practiced.  Now he looks forward each month to the skill that will be taught next–Word, PowerPoint, Excel. After six months of classes, the totally unexpected happened–Don is co-teaching the computer class alongside Evangelina!

Don is very appreciative of all he has learned from LifeSTEPS and the encouragement he received from Evangelina. He said, “Because of her persistence and patience, I was able to be comfortable around other residents, improve my computer skills, and become a confident member of my community.”

Don is now a huge advocate for his fellow residents who are also non-native computers users. Don knows how they feel–but he also knows it’s never too late to learn new skills and evolve with the changing times.