Cindy Brenner was an independent spirit, about to embark on a new chapter of her life.
Leading up to that weekend in March, she expected her divorce to be finalized soon. Work was humming along again. And life as a single mom was settling into a routine – just Cindy, her two kids and their dachshund Bruno.
Then, as she was cooking in the kitchen, Bruno got caught underfoot, sending Cindy crashing to the floor.
Just like that, her world turned upside down.
Her independence started young, at just 16 in Chicago, when Cindy left her mother’s house.
Hoping to put an abusive childhood behind her, she plunged into the world of adults.
“I always had a job,” she said.
First she worked in fast food, then in a tanning salon.
By 18, she earned her GED and soon started college courses, planning to specialize in radiology.
That was sidelined at 23 by the birth of her daughter, Madison, followed by life as a single mom and a profession in cosmetology instead.
Years later, in 2014, she married and gave birth to a son, Dahlton.
By then she and her growing family had their sights set on a new horizon: Florida.
While on vacation in Venice, they fell in love – first with the white-sand beaches, then the idyllic decorations at Christmas. Cindy scoped out the school district for the kids and liked what she learned.
That year they bought a three-bedroom, two-story house and fixed it up, eventually moving permanently from Illinois in 2017.
Her husband worked in auto repair while Cindy was a grocery store manager and then took a serving job at a tiki restaurant on the beach.
But within a few years in paradise, their lives unraveled. The marriage was troubled and Cindy needed out.
In February, 2020, she moved into a rental home. Through the next two years, times were tight as her income decreased due to the pandemic.
Having made peace with her mother and growing close again through the years, she received word that her mother had died from a brain aneurysm.
That Thanksgiving Cindy contracted COVID-19 and was bedridden for a week.
“I thought I was going to die.”
By March of this year, things were looking up. The restaurant was open full time, her hours restored, and the divorce proceedings were well underway.
The kids had adjusted to the separation – Cindy sharing custody of Dahlton, now 8, while Madison, now 19, found a place of her own. Cindy met with her at least once a week for long walks with Bruno.
Cindy was standing on her own two feet, until Bruno got tangled beneath them.
Ready for change
Cindy fractured the fifth metatarsal bone in her foot.
Two weeks of swelling were followed by several months in casts and boots when it wouldn’t heal.
“Obviously you can’t be a server with a broken foot,” she said.
Her employer accommodated her as much as possible and moved her to a hostess position, but the pay was less and her hours cut in half.
Through the summer and fall, Cindy fell further behind on her bills as stress intensified from the divorce.
Determined to stay positive, she took Dahlton to the beach, where he loved to skimboard.
Her friends showered her with support, inviting her and Dahlton for pool parties or camping trips. But financially, she was on her own, far from family and too proud to reach out for help.
“It was just me trying to figure it out,” she said. “It’s a struggle as a single mom, to work and take care of the kids.”
Heading into the fall, Cindy was almost three months behind on her $1,370 a month rent.
“Finally I had to swallow my pride,” she said.
Referred to Family Promise of South Sarasota County, she met programs manager Kim Ulrich.
Ulrich turned to Season of Sharing for help – which paid $2,000 in assistance to cover a month and a half of rent.
The aid came through just in time for Cindy to be medically cleared to return to her server job in late September.
But then closures due to Hurricane Ian set her back again. Family Promise stepped in once more with its own funds to pay two months of rent.
Season of Sharing helps agencies like Family Promise stretch their resources, Ulrich said, doubling the impact of programs for working families that are a hardship away from making rent or a car repair bill.
"She was able to get back to normal so she can sustain herself again and move on to the next stage of her life," Ulrich said.
By mid-October, the restaurant was back in full service. Cindy was at last able to make steady payments to her landlord, with whom she stayed on good terms.
“I’m so thankful for that because I don’t know where I would have gone,” she said, regarding the prospect of an eviction.
At long last, Cindy, now 43, feels like she’s on solid ground, ready for change.
With the divorce nearly finalized, she hopes to use the equity payment from the house they owned to pay off debt and make a down payment on a home of her own.
Her friends are planning a party for this next chapter of her life.
In addition to embracing her status as a single, independent woman again, there’s something else Cindy is excited about becoming in May: a grandmother, she said, beaming.
“I literally feel happier and happier every day.”
See the story, as it originally appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Dec. 25, 2022, here.
Photo by Mike Lang, Sarasota Herald-Tribune.