Sometimes she relied on her father, who’d been laid off from his job with a boat manufacturer and was later on disability with a heart condition.
Tired of living paycheck to paycheck, Heather sought better-paying jobs through the years. She inquired at veterinarian offices. Maybe she could get her foot in the door as a vet tech – a first step in the career she’d once dreamed of pursuing.
But every place she tried required a set schedule – unable to accommodate a single mom who needed to pick up her child after school and be home with her on summers and holidays.
For Heather, things like summer camps and after-school care also fell outside her budget.
Though the pay at the grocery store wasn’t high, at least her cashier job offered her the flexibility that she needed to take care of Dallas.
But then in the summer of 2022, Heather reached a breaking point.
By then she also had a son - 18-month-old Waylon - and finances were tighter than ever. Rent for the three-bedroom apartment she and the kids shared with her dad kept rising. Waylon’s father helped with expenses, but Heather was still struggling to survive. Bills piled up. And she was anxious to get Waylon into preschool.
She needed to find a way to make more money, but she also needed help with the kids.
Jim Camelo, a social worker with Sarasota schools, heard of her plight through her daughter’s school.
He talked with her about the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County, or ELC. Through its network of early learning centers, preschools, and daycares, the ELC provides childcare subsidies for qualifying working parents.
Heather contacted numerous preschools on the ELC’s provider list. Finally, she found one that had an opening. And it wasn't too far from her Sarasota home.
But there was another challenge. Heather, constantly playing catch-up, was unable to save for the fees or initial tuition.
Camelo had more good news for her. There was help available, through Season of Sharing.
“I was so thankful; I was pretty much speechless when he told me all that,” Heather said about Camelo, the ELC and Season of Sharing.
For the 2022-23 school year, Season of Sharing assisted with $2,000 for her son’s preschool expenses so Heather could catch up and get on her feet with the tuition.
Camelo said Heather is the type of hard-working mom who is always on the go. In addition to juggling her job, she looks out for her own kids while also helping other parents and a close circle of family friends.
He said he knows of many families in similar situations -- torn between work and expensive childcare -- with the end result that many children end up entering the school system without preschool preparation due to the expense.
“It’s definitely rough for families, especially single moms with two children,” he said. “It is really difficult for a lot of working people. Things are so expensive.”
Since the help from Season of Sharing, Heather has watched Waylon thrive in preschool. Almost 3, he loves his teachers and is talking up a storm.
Meanwhile, Heather has been able to clock in more hours at work.
Times are still tight, as their electric bills have suddenly soared and rent has climbed to almost $2,000 a month. Sometimes she takes a hit when she has to call off work when the kids are sick.
But she is making things work, trying not to dwell on the fragile balance she is holding in place. She wants the kids to have a happy childhood and to dream big, like she once did.
Dallas, now 11, shares her mom’s former goals. She wants to be a veterinarian someday.
When Heather takes the kids to see family friends on their farm, Dallas spends almost the whole visit with the chickens, dogs, cats, ducks and horses.
“Every time we’re over there, she’s telling me about animals and where they are from and their habitats,” Heather said laughing. “She is too smart for me.”
At 29, Heather knows it’s not too late for her to pursue her childhood dreams, too.
But maybe when the kids are a little older, she says. She can think about getting a better-paying job or going back to school when she doesn’t have to worry about childcare.
“I think it will be easier when that time comes,” she said. “At least I hope.”
This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.