As Tiffany and her two sons, Lorenzo and Josiah, sat and played in the Miriam House living room, there was no question this place was once home. Now the family lives in their own home, but they still come back to visit the place that gave them new hope.
Tiffany and her four children moved to Miriam House in spring 2013 after she and her husband separated.
“My husband and I bought a house in New Mexico together, and it didn’t work out between us,” Tiffany said.
“My children and I stayed with my in-laws before we came back to Ohio to stay with my family. But when I got back to Norwalk, there was no room, and it was a lot of stress being back around my family.”
After being home for a few months, Tiffany made a phone call to Miriam House.
Located in Norwalk, Miriam House is a transitional housing program that offers safe and stable housing to homeless women and their children.
“I never thought I would be in a position where I would need help,” she said.
“Times got kind of hard, and I had to figure something out. I thought maybe I could come here and get myself back together,” Tiffany recalled.
The family of five moved into Miriam House a few days later. Tiffany said that it was stressful at first, but after some time, Miriam House became a safe place where our staff became like family.
“I liked that we could play outside, watch T.V. and play on the playground,” said 11-year-old Lorenzo as his four-year-old brother Josiah sat next to him nodding his head in agreement.
Tiffany used her time at Miriam House to go back to school for her high school diploma.
“At first I kept saying, ‘I couldn’t do it.’ It was hard having to take care of my kids, go to work and get the credits I needed to graduate. I think being here helped me because I was able to talk to someone. I was never able to talk to anyone before about my situation.”
With encouragement from Miriam House staff, Tiffany was able to finish her credits and receive her diploma.
“I am now in school at the Ohio Business College in Sandusky for my degree in Medical Administration,” she said proudly.
Tiffany secured a house four months after she moved into the Miriam House. She attributes her success to the help she received while living there.
“I appreciate all that they have done. Being at Miriam House helped me and my family. Thank you to all who make Miriam House possible.”
The rooms at Miriam House were not unfamiliar to Ashley, a current resident. Ashley lived at Miriam House once before when hard times had hit the single mother of three in 2006. It was a minor bump in the road, and Miriam House was a place to regain stability.
“I graduated from the housing program a year later, and I moved into an apartment here in Norwalk. I lived there for seven years.”
Things were going well for Ashley and her family, but then her life started to spin out of control, fast.
“I got involved with the wrong people. Drugs and alcohol. My life was a very fast downward spiral. I was in and out of jail. It got to the point where Children Services had to step in, and my kids were taken away. I really had to look at life from another point of view.”
After being evicted from her home and having no other place to go, Ashley turned to Miriam House again for guidance in December 2013. But the transition was not easy.
“It was rough. It was really hard to hold still. There was a big change from doing whatever I wanted to do, to doing what the staff and others wanted me to do.”
With help and praise from Miriam House staff, Ashley was able to focus on activities that would get her life on the right path.
“The staff got me involved with volunteering, counseling, classes and things to do throughout the day. I was busy doing positive things.”
After months of hard work and sobriety, Ashley is back on top and in control. She now spends some of her time writing poetry about her experiences, interviewing for jobs and enjoying visits with her children.
“They love it at Miriam House. There are a lot of things to do as a family: board games, movies. My daughters love to help cook and help out around the house.”
Ashley is now attending church regularly. She credits the power of faith and prayer as guiding lights out of a dark time.
“Miriam House was the answer to my prayers. Escaping out of that world led me here. I believe that everything happens for a reason. God guides you down the path that you need to go down. Since I’ve been here, I’ve really tried hard to listen to what he wants me to do.”
“While living here, they support you and motivate you to move in the right direction. If anything happens, they are there to lift you up and guide you to where you need to be.”
Ashley works with her case mangers daily to stay sober and to find stable employment and housing for her and her children.
“It’s like your own personal safe haven. You don’t have to worry about any personal problem or have any doubts in your mind that you are safe.”
For Angie, Catholic Charities’ Miriam House in Norwalk was a chance to get her life together. “My whole life did a 180 because of everyone there.”
Angie now works as a legal assistant and loves her job. But it was quite a struggle to get to where she is now.
Everything Was Going Wrong
Angie lost her job after taking time off due to illness. Without income,she lost her car too. All of the stress made it even more difficult to find a job. One thing after another was going wrong for Angie. She spent half a year moving from place to place until a friend told her about Miriam House.
“I was scared, actually, at first. The staff members were very supportive and kind to me and helped me out in so many ways.”
After moving into Miriam House in July of 2010, it took Angie two months to find a job. She worked the night shift at a nursing home and had to ride her bike or walk to her job no matter what the weather conditions were.
Eventually Angie was able to begin classes to become a state tested nursing assistant. She took the classes while still working nights at the nursing home and doing her chores at Miriam House. Once she was certified, Angie was able to maintain a full-time job at the nursing home.
Becoming a Responsible Adult
“I did feel accomplished and proud of myself, but also grateful for the help I received in the Miriam House.”
Angie felt really down and emotional at times. With everything going on, she needed someone to talk to. The staff listened to Angie and they found her a free counselor. “They helped me get a different outlook on myself and my life.
“I will never forget what the Miriam House staff members did to help me become a better person. In a way, they saved my life. They taught me responsibility and were kind and caring to me when I was at the lowest of the lows. I now have the tools to take care of myself, which in turn is making it easier to want to be the best I can be at all times.”
Things Start Coming Together
After working full-time for a month and a half, Angie made enough money to get an apartment and Miriam House staff helped her find furniture. She saved up her money and bought a car, too.
“They treated us like human beings, with kindness and respect. They are very good people there.”
Angie was able to move closer to her family and obtained her current job as a legal assistant.
“I am so grateful to the staff members.They never gave up on me and that was pretty awesome.”
Bonita’s family lost everything.
In 2009, Bonita’s world was rocked. Her son, Elijah, who had been having headaches, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. That’s when things started unraveling.
She and her three children had been living in the Cleveland area in a house owned by her father. But when her dad had a stroke, he was unable to work and eventually was forced to declare bankruptcy.
And Bonita couldn’t support the family by herself. Since she couldn’t make their car payment and their rent and their health insurance premium, they lost everything.
“I look back, and it’s like God was talking to me through that man. I don’t know what we’d be doing now if we hadn’t come here. Probably living in a shelter in Cleveland in the middle of who-knows-what, and I’d be worrying about my children and their safety. And you know my son’s medical situation would suffer, too.”
Please pray for Elijah
Elijah has been going regularly to Cleveland Clinic for treatments – and Bonita asks everyone who reads this to pray for him.
“I will always be grateful to God for listening to our prayers, for giving us what we need to live.”
Since coming to Miriam House, Bonita has been working at a home health care service, assisting invalids with in-home care. In October, the family was able to move into an apartment of their own.
“I’m just so, so grateful to everyone here,” she says. “They made the transition so easy for us. They were so welcoming. This isn’t like a shelter, it’s a home. I have peace of mind now. God is in this place.”
Asked for a closing thought, she says: “My son Elijah loved it so much there that he didn’t want to leave Miriam House. I can’t even tell you how grateful that makes me. This place does so much good. So much good.”
Her little son, Cayden, is sitting in a high chair, looking like Calvin from the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. Under his mother’s watchful eye, he is feeding himself haltingly with a spoon.
It is the thirtieth day since Cayden and his mother came to Miriam House, Catholic Charities’ emergency center for mothers and children in Norwalk.
“I think he’s very bright,” his mother, Lindsay, says, obviously proud. “He wants to do everything by himself. He repeats everything.”
With her big eyes and her sweet smile, Lindsay herself looks like a young girl. But with an 18-month-old son to raise, no money coming in, and no place to stay, 23-year-old Lindsay’s problems were very grown-up.
Nowhere to go
Lindsay’s smile fades as her thoughts return to the recent and difficult past:
“I wasn’t working. I’d lost the job I’d had for four years. We lost our place and moved in with my parents. But my stepdad and I had a falling out, and they kicked us out. So we moved in with his other grandparents for about a month, but their landlord wouldn’t let us stay in their duplex because it was a single-family residence.”
Her hands tremble slightly as she moves to guide Cayden’s spoon.
“I would wake up in the morning and it seemed our situation would just be getting worse and worse. I had no place to stay, no way to see anything would get any better. I was getting depressed. Things were so hectic.”
And, she said, her son’s father was in no position to help.
“He’s got a felony on his record, so nobody will hire him.”
Not surprisingly, the stress Lindsay was under was soon reflected in Cayden’s behavior.
“He was hitting and biting and throwing things – basically doing anything he could to get my attention, so I’d hug him and tell him I was going to make it better. It wasn’t his fault, though. Things were so crazy – he didn’t have any routine or anything he could count on.
“Finally, the people at the CAC (the Community Action Commission in Norwalk) who knew my situation gave us the number here at Miriam House. I called and they had me come in. They explained the program to me, and it seemed almost too good to be true. They’ve been helping me be a better mother to Cayden, and he’s doing so much better already.
“If we complete the program, they’ll help us with a security deposit and the first month’s rent at our own place.”
What it takes
When she found out her story is to be printed in a Catholic Charities newsletter, Lindsay made it a point to emphasize how grateful she is to all those whose support makes Miriam House possible.
“You be sure and tell them how thankful I am!” she says. “Cayden, too! If it weren’t for Miriam House, I don’t even want to think what we’d have done.”
She pauses, crosses her arms and brings her hand to her mouth. Her big eyes have tears in them.
“We’ll be going to church here too. I know God’s a big part of what it takes to turn your life around. I’ve seen that before with people. And now I believe I’m ready for it too.”
It’s hard to get the whole story because Katie Barnes is so modest, so unassuming, about the good work she does.
“I don’t do anything so special,” she says, “There are a lot of other people – a lot of other people – who help. There are a lot of generous people here in Norwalk.”
And that’s certainly true. And now, thanks to Katie Barnes, all those generous people know who they can give their cash donations to, and their bake sale proceeds, and the clothing their kids outgrow – all the while knowing that their charity is going where it can do the most good.
“We’ve kind of adopted Miriam House,” Barnes says, speaking of the Catholic Charities shelter for mothers and children located in Norwalk. “It was back around Thanksgiving of 2009 that we really started getting involved.”
With Katie Barnes, it’s always “we,” never “I.” She heard somewhere that Miriam House needed help – food for the residents, and clothes and toys for the children.
“It was sad. The kids were wearing old clothes that didn’t fit very well, and they hardly had anything to play with. Just a couple of old puzzles. So I called my friend Toni who works at Miriam House and asked her what we could do for these people. We had a fund-raiser, raised some extra money, and bought them food for Thanksgiving – potatoes, bread, fresh vegetables and fruit. Then we had them put a wish list together for Christmas. We helped get them what they needed. I remember we made them some nice Christmas cookies that first year.”
Since then, the entire Wal-Mart family, including store manager Kathleen Sullivan, has pitched in.
“I remember getting a tour of the home after Thanksgiving,” Barnes says. “It was always clean and bright, but it wasn’t luxurious by any means. One of the mothers was giving me a tour. When we got to her room, she showed me a little Christmas tree. There was nothing under it for her child, nothing there for her. That really got to me. That’s when I realized, these people have nothing. It makes you grateful for what you have, I’ll tell you that.”
Ashley, a young mother, is playing airplane with her little boy in the cheerful, well-swept living room of a house on a shady street in near-downtown Norwalk. She’s understandably proud as she introduces her son.
“This is Vega,” she says. “Like the star.”
The place is Miriam House, a transitional shelter for homeless women and their young children, including, since August, Ashley and Vega. Ashley was raised in the Southwest, in a family that was so chaotic her mother didn’t even try to enroll her in high school until Ashley was 18. So it’s no surprise that raising her boy in the chaos of her parents’ home didn’t exactly work out. Besides, she says, she wants a better upbringing for her son than she had.
Ashley spent what little money she had coming to northwest Ohio to stay with other relatives, but their patience soon wore thin.
“It’s not easy living with a baby,” she says with a shrug. When they told her she would have to leave, she was out of options. “I was stuck. I had no money and I didn’t know a soul around here. Someone told me about this place, so I called and they told me to get over here right away. This place was there for me when nobody else was. I was afraid I’d have to find a way to live on the street with my baby, so I’m very grateful.
“And this isn’t like a homeless shelter at all. It’s like a little house. There’s love here. Whatever your traumas or your issues, the staff here go out of their way to help. I’ve gotten tips and guidance on all kinds of things. Like how to manage money.
“I’m working on getting set up so I can have a place of my own for me and my son. I have a lot of hope for him. I don’t want to see him fall.
“I myself was never taught anything that was important when I was growing up. My whole life now is dedicated to helping him have something better.
“That’s why I appreciate the classes I take here. I’ve improved so much since I’ve come here. I’m proud of what I’ve done.
“Doing things right in life is very important. You only get one chance.”
Roxanne Sandles, Catholic Charities Housing Program Coordinator, is quick to credit the efforts to educate and guide the residents with the success of Miriam House.
“Ashley is right about that,” she said. This really is not just a homeless shelter. We do try to give the women the help they need to improve their life skills and their job marketability. They need to be able to take responsibility for where they are, and work to ensure that they are making better decisions in the future.
“It’s not easy. But I find that ‘important’ and ‘easy’ are two words that rarely go together.”