Local mother to share story at May 15 FOCUS luncheonWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sierra was 10 years old and getting ready for school when her mother told her to pack some extra clothes in her backpack.
She was excited, thinking it meant she would be spending the night at her aunt’s house after school. But her mom drove Downtown instead, where she stopped in front of a tall building and told Sierra to wait inside while she parked the car.
The building was Lucas County Children Services (LCCS) and Sierra never saw her mother again.
After bouncing from home to home in foster care for several years, Sierra started sneaking out to meet an older guy she was dating. She got pregnant at age 15. Two years later, when her son’s father moved out of state, Sierra went with him, trying to keep their family together. But when he started abusing her, she returned to Toledo with her son.
Unable to find a job, they ended up at the YWCA shelter.
“I knew I had hit rock bottom when my son looked at me and asked, ‘Momma, is this where we’re going to stay tonight?’” Sierra wrote in a statement. “You have no idea how hard it was for me to have to tell him, ‘Yes, we’ll be here for a while.’
“I knew then I had to make some big changes. My son was the second generation to be born in foster care and he was the third generation to live in foster care. I promised myself then and there that he would be the last.”
The shelter referred Sierra to the local nonprofit FOCUS (Family Outreach Community United Services), which helps those exiting the emergency shelter system find permanent housing and stabilize their lives.
“Sometimes I wondered what was wrong with all of these people,” Sierra wrote. “They were always positive, smiling and telling me I could succeed. It took me a while to really believe it, but they were right.”
Now 25, Sierra will be the keynote speaker at FOCUS’ annual spring luncheon.
The fundraiser is set for noon to 1 p.m. May 15 at the Park Inn Grand Ballroom, 101 N. Summit St. Admission is free, but an RSVP is required by noon May 13 by calling (419) 244-2175. Toledo Free Press Editor in Chief Michael S. Miller will be master of ceremonies for the event.
“The issue of homelessness in our community can’t be left to a handful of service providers; it is a community-wide issue,” said FOCUS Executive Director Kyle Grefe. “We need community support, community resources, access to employment opportunities for the people we serve. There is so much the community can respond to and knowledge and understanding are the first steps to that.”
Last year’s luncheon drew about 300 people and raised about $30,000 in donations, which help FOCUS provide families with household items not covered by grant funding, including hygiene products, dishes, cookware, paper towels, toilet paper, light bulbs, laundry baskets and more, said FOCUS Grants Administrator Lori Quartermaine.
In 2012, FOCUS helped secure housing for 172 households consisting of 198 adults and 302 children. Fewer than 5 percent of those served by FOCUS become homeless again, Grefe said.
“People quickly stabilize when they are in their own home,” she said. “The quicker we can get people into their own home, with case management services wrapped around them and linkages to mainstream resources in the community, the faster that family will achieve the kinds of goals they need in order to never become homeless again.
“[Being homeless is] unnerving because you lose hope, you lose dignity, you lose all the things that make you confident that you can make good decisions in your life for you and your family.
“Sierra’s story touched us so much because she has had such a troubled youth and she’s come so far so quickly,” Grefe said. “It took a lot of counseling and a lot of ability to rise above all the circumstances in her life and to know that she did not want to repeat the patterns in her family’s history that led to the chaos she experienced.”
Breaking the cycle
Sierra “graduated” from FOCUS in December, after working with counselors and case workers for about a year. She is working part time and looking for full-time employment. Her son, now 10, is doing well in school. She plans to start college this fall and go into social work.
“I want to be able to speak for those who have no voice, just like the people at FOCUS spoke for me,” Sierra wrote. “I really hope to come back and volunteer with FOCUS someday. They were there for me when I had no hope. I honestly don’t know where I’d be right now without them.”
For more information, visit the website www.focustoledo.org.