“I had a rough life,” says Deborah as the newly promoted Café Supervisor shared her story. Raised in Orlando by her loving grandmother and then an “auntie,” who only took her and her sister in so they “wouldn’t be in the system,” Deborah reacted by getting in trouble. “I just didn’t want to be there. She just wanted the (support) check. I would have done better in the system!”
At 15 years old Deborah ran away and basically “raised herself.” She moved in with friends and, when she got into trouble again, was brought into the family fold of her 23 siblings (yes, 23!), with whom she’d never before had a relationship. She got a job and “taught myself everything.” At 18, Deborah gave birth to a son and moved into her own place, maintaining a relationship with her son’s dad.
Throughout her hardships, Deborah was committed to working and loved to cook, having taught herself. She spent eight years as Assistant Manager at a fast food restaurant. Unfortunately, she lost the job after an argument with her boss. “I had anger and a temper problem. If I could take that back, I would,” laments the now-cheerful and composed woman.
“I learned from the experience,” she says, “How to control my anger…what comes out of my mouth…how to stay professional…how to respect others.” With that life lesson, Deborah began working for a temporary agency, which led in 2013 to a permanent position in maintenance at the Convention Center. She worked there until early 2019, this time leaving of her own volition for an offer in her dream field – cooking!
In September 2018, Deborah’s weekend convention work schedule and our free Pathlight Kitchen Culinary Training Program enabled her to do what she’d always wanted to do, but couldn’t afford, “to go to culinary class!”
What started as something to “teach me more about cooking,” turned into much more. “It made me happy,” she exudes, “Because I was around people who really cared and because I was given an opportunity to succeed in something I always wanted to do.”
“Chef Esteban saw that in me. He spent time with me, teaching me the correct way to do things…about temperatures…things I didn’t know. He even showed me how to filet a fish! He was very professional and took his time…always polite and kind.”
Even more remarkable for her than the skills, “He made me believe in myself! He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. It gave me a leap of faith that I could go out in the culinary world. I would never have seen myself working in a culinary kitchen!”
Deborah now works in the culinary kitchen at Lucky’s Market Vineland, preparing and packaging their “Fresh Pack” delicacies, and has recently been promoted to Lucky’s Café Supervisor. To observe this dynamic culinary graduate, hear the compliments from her coworkers, and learn she’s already been Employee of the Month twice, one would never guess she hadn’t foreseen herself in this very position!
Deborah bestows the major credit to Chef Esteban and Shannelle, our Pathlight Kitchen Program Assistant, as they taught her well and referred her for the position at Lucky’s Market. They, in turn, point to her newfound belief in her own abilities. That belief shines through as she realizes proudly, “earning my Food Handler and Allergen Certifications (in the culinary class) helped me get my job.”
She is also grateful to the management at Lucky’s Market Vineland for their understanding during a medical issue several months ago. Because of their support, she feels even “more comfortable in learning new things and offering ideas.” In fact, Deborah loves preparing Chef Esteban’s “stew beef” so much that she’s introduced it, as well as some other dishes, to her colleagues.
Her take-away for prospective Pathlight Kitchen students is quite simple, “That’s the best opportunity you can have. It will teach you; and you will better yourself!”
Community partnerships are essential to a nonprofit organization like Pathlight HOME. They are an indispensable means to helping our formerly homeless residents with life’s essentials, such as food, clothing, bedding, kind words, and even a spiritual uplift.
One such partnership is with The Salvation Army Orlando Area Command and the man whose heart and residency at our Maxwell Terrace Apartments started it all – Corps Sergeant-Major Brian S.
New York born and raised, Brian worked for Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs in Coney Island and Long Island for 10 years. Always close to his supportive family, he was devastated as “people started passing away” when he was in his twenties. He reacted to his grief and loneliness with drugs and alcohol. That led to 30 years of active addiction, 17 of which were spent on the streets.
While homeless in New York, Brian won $37K in the state’s lottery. Feeling flush with money and determined to change his life, he left for Florida. “I thought I’d get away from drugs and go to Orlando.”
Two months later, though, he was broke and living under I-4 at Orange Blossom Trail. He’d blown the windfall on drugs, motels, and inviting unsavory people to share his motel rooms.
Brian’s lifestyle became a cycle of living on the streets, at The Salvation Army and Coalition for the Homeless. Luckily, “I didn’t get killed” on the streets, he says. Things got worse when, “On a drug spree, I ended up robbing a gas station. I didn’t have a gun. It was a non-violent crime.”
When he got out of jail, Brian hit rock bottom and prayed for help. His prayers were answered when he was referred to The Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC), a six month recovery program. “It saved my life,” he says proudly. “I’ve been sober ever since!” That was 16 years ago.
When Brian finished the ARC program, the very same gas station owner he had robbed gave him a job and found him a room. Brian worked there until his boss sold the business and he lived in the rooming house for four years.
“I needed something better,” he recalls, so in 2008 Brian moved to permanent housing at Pathlight HOME’s Maxwell Terrace Apartments. “It’s a good way of appreciating your own place…my own bed, a roll-top desk, a better way of life.”
Having internalized a “save to serve” outlook at the ARC, his formerly-homeless neighbors provided him an opportunity “to see the needs in our community.”
“There were other people who needed help,” he says “One person came to me…he had a job interview and had no shoes. I actually gave him my shoes.”
Brian began preparing sandwiches and buying clothes for his neighbors in need. Still in close touch with the ARC and Salvation Army staff, he enlisted their help to provide food, clothing, volunteers to assist, and bibles. He established Saturday in the Maxwell Terrace garden area as the day and place to “give things out,” telling neighbors, “I’ll see you Saturday.”
“That was the start of my ministry,” he explains, “To meet human needs without discrimination.” Just as important to Brian was the sense of community his quest brought about. “[The residents] were learning to be a community…learning how to help each other,” he remembers. “You could see people benefiting from it…how we talk and know each other. [It was] bringing the community together.”
His ministry was meant to continue! When Brian’s gas station job ended, he started working for the ARC and, “Everything fell into place.” In fact, Brian’s good works only got better. In 2011, The Salvation Army dedicated a bus with supplies and volunteers to his Saturday morning ministry at Maxwell Terrace, enabling the charitable route to include Pathlight HOME’s Maxwell Garden Apartments and a nearby trailer park. That indispensable resource continues today, assisting about 130 very appreciative people each Saturday.
Though he’s there on Saturdays, Brian moved from Maxwell Terrace in 2013. “It was time to move on. I benefited from what I got there by helping others,” he says. “That was my need…It’s to help others, so they [can learn to] help others. Some people have to be shown. I had to be shown!”
Brian’s ability to offer, “A little nudge to lift them up and show that people care,” has resulted in another proud role in the community: Assistant Chaplain at the Orange County Jail. His past life on the streets, years on drugs, longtime recovery and spiritual core are the perfect qualifications. “I was out there 17 years with an addiction. Who cared for me? I’ve had experience with that,” he states.
And as one who definitely walks the walk, Brian says, “I wish there were more people who would help [others]. People come at the holidays; but they need to help at all times, to show others that someone cares. It gives us a purpose in life to give back to others.”
Florida born and raised, Charleen lived in several towns, moving with her mother’s job of picking and packing sugar cane and mangoes. With her mom’s marriage, they settled in Mt. Dora, where Charleen graduated high school. She also started hanging around with the wrong crowd, became addicted to drugs, and got in trouble with the law.
The judge thought she’d do better in another locale, with a different crowd of people, and she moved to Apopka to live with her uncle. All was good until she resumed her drug habit. For the very first time, however, Charleen “started thinking about how the drugs were affecting others.”
Perhaps, she thought, because her upbringing was beginning to have an effect. “My grandfather was a pastor and my mother was a ‘prayer warrior,’” she explains. “I had a personal relationship with God, but I strayed.”
Two promises helped her get serious about living a clean and sober life. Her mother, who was raising one of Charleen’s two daughters, got very sick. Just before she died, “I made a promise to her that I’d change my life,” Charleen says. She succeeded for a year, but went back to her addictions after her dad and only sister passed away within a month of each other.
When her older daughter got pregnant, Charleen made the second pledge, one that has since been tested yet guides her sobriety to this day. “I wanted a granddaughter named Serenity,” she remembers. “I made a promise to her that if she’d name the baby Serenity, I would stop drinking and drugging. Serenity will be six years old in January and I’ve been clean and sober for six years!”
Charleen’s housing situation wasn’t as positive. Living in fear with an abusive partner, in a place with no electricity, she landed beaten-up in the hospital with no safe place to call home. Through a fortunate merging of her knowledge of the Pathlight HOME Safe Haven Program at Maxwell Garden, a caring doctor, a police report, Maxwell Garden staff and an available unit, Charleen moved in and finally felt safe. She also worked hard on her sobriety.
Relationship issues resulted in Charleen leaving the program after a year. “It was a challenge, but I stayed clean, sober and prayed-up,” she says of the resulting disappointment. She stayed with a friend and then her ex-boyfriend’s family, yet was not comfortable doing so. As one who always worked, primarily in food service and labor pool jobs, Charleen landed a job in a plant nursery and persuaded them to hire her daughter as well. When the housing situation came down to the two adults and Serenity living in a truck, they visited Maxwell Garden, to see if units were available. Thankfully, a unit was available for her daughter and Serenity; one for Carleen followed shortly.
With the foliage season over, Charleen was laid off. Her next year-long job as a hotel housekeeper was near home, but business got slow. Through a job fair, she landed a cook position quite far from Maxwell Garden. After months of taking long rides on public transportation at odd hours, and at times spending precious money for a ride service, she asked for a transfer. The only available position was even further away in Kissimmee. She prayed for an opportunity nearer to her Maxwell Garden home and was finally hired at a nearby McDonald’s, but then, “They cut me to one day! How do you live?”
“I was a damsel in distress,” she laments, yet knew, “God hasn’t failed me yet!” That’s when there was a part-time opening at Sobik’s Subs (at Maxwell Garden) for someone experienced in food and customer service, with a solid work ethic, who would be there on time. Since she lives at the property, gets along with people and knew Sobik’s Manager, Barbara, Charleen prayed this one of Pathlight HOME’s Social Enterprise Programs could be her answer. She asked Barbara if she’d, “Try me for 90 days.”
It’s now going on three months and Charleen is thrilled to be preparing and serving delicious Sobik’s Subs food to customers, alongside of Barbara. “I truly consider myself blessed. I’m happier and more content (than ever.) If I was to fail…it will be because of me – not the rain or because I missed the bus.”
…I came from nothing and Pathlight HOME gave me an opportunity to become the independent person I want to be. I look at it as being disciplined…With my transition, I had to discipline myself to stay on the straight and narrow. This is me and my Higher Power…not the drugs!”
Now a contented Maxwell Garden resident, Mary Ann’s formative years were pretty rough. Assessed at an early age as a slow learner, and living in an abusive family situation, she dropped out of school at 16 years old and ran away from home. She never went back.
Thankfully, friends took her into their home, where she stayed for the next two years. Her lifelong learning disabilities afforded her some Social Security income which, coupled with jobs through a labor pool and some additional benefits when her father died, helped her get by financially.
Over the ensuing years, Mary Ann lived in several rooming houses for long periods of time, with an 18-month stretch in a homeless shelter in between. She recalls her frustration with fellow tenants and their lack of cleanliness at the last rooming house. “I had to clean up behind people,” she says, remembering a particularly repugnant man whose mess she tidied up, “and then he cussed me out!”
“I got tired of cleaning up after other people and I wanted a place of my own,” she states. Her situation grew so distasteful she finally knew, “I’ve got to get out of here!” With that notion, she moved to the streets, absolutely convinced that, “The street was better than the rooming house!”
“I didn’t have to go to the streets because I had money, but I wanted to be by myself,” Mary Ann reasons. Those resources enabled her to go from sleeping in the park to motel rooms for two months, as well as save for an eventual place to live.
In addition to providing an unconventional type of solitude, that lifestyle supplied information when she was ready. “I knew people on the streets and they told me about Maxwell Garden. I came in with my ID and Social Security Card, applied (for an apartment), and about a month later, I moved in.” That was October 2018.
“Since I’ve been here, I’m doing good...better than when I was on the street,” she says. “I like it here. I’ve met better friends!” In particular, Mary Ann appreciates the neighbor who is happy to help her when needed and is grateful for her Case Manager, Syr Rodriguez. “She got me a replacement Medicaid Card!”
“I feel good now. I can stay to myself,” she says about her air-conditioned efficiency, a godsend for her asthma. “I can leave here and lock my door and not worry about somebody coming in.”
And remembering all those messy rooming house problems, she declares, “And I keep my house clean!”
Mark talks about having a sense of community, a support system geared for success, and feeling safe and secure - perhaps for the first time. Now in Pathlight HOME’s Restore Program, the traumatic memories of a five-year-old living in a small Florida town flash in his 57-year-old mind: a burning cross in the front yard…poisoned animals… an FBI agent…a schizophrenic brother… small country schoolhouses…desegregation…divorced parents.
Growing up with “a mother who probably should never have had kids,” and a brother who was “malicious and mentally ill,” Mark became independent at a young age. Though a nurse, his mother couldn’t grasp the facts that one son had psychological issues and the other craved emotional support.
Mark, who was white with black friends, reacted to the racial strife during his schools’ desegregation by becoming angry and a loner. “The less I had to do with humanity, the better,” he remembers. “Overall, my attitude was negative. I became a rebel. I hated everything, but I didn’t act in a negative way (to a racial situation)…didn’t actively start trouble…but I would fight if provoked. It was a toxic atmosphere.”
“One of the traits I developed was paranoia,” says Mark of his young years. “That same paranoia has saved my life! The first thought that comes into my mind is, ‘What do you want?’ I’m only paranoid when I’m wrong,” he reasons.
Smoking pot and clashing with a teacher ended Mark’s school days, landing him “locked up in juvenile detention for two years.” Released from jail to a father he hadn’t seen in 12 years, Mark moved with his dad’s family to Orlando, got a job, and paid them rent. When he learned his dad was “being paid (by the system) to take care of me,” he left.
Mark got involved in a relationship and began working in a restaurant. However, he “never became ambitious…to realize it could become a career,” blaming his “stunted childhood.” When they broke up after 10 years and the restaurant went out of business, he felt he had nothing left.
He sold his belongings, packed his clothes in eight suitcases and began life on the streets of downtown Orlando. Mark wrapped the suitcases in garbage bags and buried them in a field. “When I needed clean clothes, I’d go dig it up. I didn’t know about laundromats. When something got dirty, I’d throw it away.”
For 12 or 13 years, he wandered the streets, stayed at homeless shelters, and got arrested for trespassing or “sitting and reading.” He worked as much as he could at day labor jobs, and sought places to sleep, away from predators. “If you’re lucky, you’ll find a good spot.” When he was able to save some money, he stayed in a hotel for several nights, risking the loss of his spot.
“People liked the way I worked,” he says with pride. That led to a two-year, full time position at a prominent downtown business club, along with their help to find housing. The job ended with a change in management, and Mark found himself back on the streets, battling to get his unemployment compensation. When it came through thanks to Legal Aid, a large sum burned a hole in Mark’s pocket.
“One of the first things I did was to get new clothes,” he recalls. “I went to a motel and to a restaurant. It gave me a sense of belonging.” He was able to exist for more than two years, “sometimes in the streets; sometimes in motels,” but this time was different. “There was no work.”
“Sometime in 2015, these two gentlemen showed up, Joel and Brad from the (Health Care Center for the Homeless) HOPE Team,” Mark recalls. “By this time, I’m shot mentally…getting physically weaker every day.” He has since been diagnosed with cancer, diabetes and a degenerative disk in his back.
“Joel told me about the Restore Program. I told him, ‘No, you’re insane! That program can’t exist.’” But the program does exist; and Mark “was manic” about getting in, only calming down when Restore Programs Manager Audrey Sanford told him he “was in.”
Mark’s paranoia gripped him his last night on the streets. “I have never been so terrified in all my life (about something bad happening). I have 12 hours to go before I’m behind (my own) walls. I stayed up all night. God likes to do practical jokes!”
“Finally, they handed me my key,” he smiles. “When you go in, you have the basics. You have to build up…” And now that Mark receives disability benefits, he is trying to build and is “absolutely happy to pay my rent.” It goes fast, though. He’s working on budgeting skills and is very grateful for hygiene kits and other donated items from the community.
“One thing that keeps me grounded here is that I’ve done nothing to be given this chance. I haven’t earned this. Other people have made it possible for me to live, not just survive,” he explains. “People need to understand that the main rule and regulation (in Restore) is to act like a grown-up. It’s up to you to decide if you’re a success or not. If you fail, you fail…NOT the program."
And the greatest benefit to this former man on the streets? “A sense of security and safety. You’ve got four walls, a door and a lock. You can’t buy that with money. A sense of security is invaluable.”