Sometime between sleeping in her mother's living room and paying for Uber rides to work every day, Sondra Evans knew something had to give.
She'd always been independent and had a job since she turned 16. The oldest of five siblings, Sondra was long the caregiver in the family, including for a disabled brother.
But now - as a single mom in her forties, with two teenage kids to support - she was the one who needed help.
How, she wondered, had she arrived here, so far from her adolescence - and that first taste of freedom?
"My own place"
For Sondra, from early on, the world of work was where things most made sense.
Not only did her first jobs in housekeeping and as a cashier put money in her pockets, they also got her out of the house.
As the oldest child and only daughter with four younger brothers - and with their mother usually at work - Sondra was often the one in charge. She fixed her siblings' meals and their problems, taking special care of her brother with cerebral palsy.
The five of them were close. The boys liked to joke that they would grow up to be famous while Sondra fantasized about styling famous people's hair.
But an even bigger dream was blossoming in her heart - inspired by the years of caring for her disabled brother.
"I wanted to help people like him," she said.
In her late teens, Sondra went back to school, to Suncoast Technical College, and obtained her medical technician's certificate.
Through her twenties, she worked as a resident assistant at various assisted living facilities.
At 26, she spread her wings and moved into her own apartment for the very first time. She paid $750 a month for the one-bedroom unit close to downtown, not far from her mom's house so she could visit and continue to help with her brother.
"That felt really great, to have my own place," she said.
But her new-found independence was cut short a little more than a year later when she got a call from a cousin, who was calm as he relayed horrible news.
Her brother Michael - who she was especially close to - had been shot during a dispute with another man. He died at the scene.
"Life was kind of tough"
Reeling from grief, Sondra moved back home with her mother.
Within a year, in 2009, she was pregnant with her son.
Sondra coped with the sorrow over her brother's death the way she always had, with work. The day she went into labor she called colleagues from the hospital to be sure someone would cover her shift.
"Once I had my son, I wanted to go further and make more money so I could provide for him," she said.
With childcare assistance through the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County, Sondra returned full time to the assisted living facility while putting herself through school again - this time to become a certified nursing assistant.
That certification led to better-paying jobs, now in nursing homes. She gave birth to a daughter in 2012 and rented apartments between Bradenton and Sarasota, returning briefly with the kids to her mom's place at the start of the pandemic and again a year ago, after falling into depression following a miscarriage.
Once more, Sondra was determined to pull out of a crisis, move forward and further herself through more schooling. This time, it was for the career she had fantasized about as a kid: cosmetology.
The schedule was grueling - a full load of classes atop double shifts at her nursing home job, right through the weekend.
There was little time for the kids and the car trips she had always carved out for them to Orlando, visiting the more affordable water parks.
"Working and going to school - it was hard, very very hard," she said. "My week never stopped until I graduated."
After graduation in June of this year, she could slow down slightly, as she worked two jobs - one at a barber shop in Sarasota and her usual long hours at the nursing home.
At this point, the kids - 13 and 11 - were restless for a place of their own after living in cramped quarters at her mom's house. Sondra also was itching for her independence again, to find an apartment for her and the kids.
But by now, the housing crisis had sent rents soaring. On top of that, vehicle repairs for a failing car and paying for rides to her job drained her bank account.
"I thought I was going to be at my mom's place a very long time," she said.
All worth it
Finally, a friend helped her find something she could afford - a three-bedroom apartment for $1,500 a month in Bradenton. The deposit, though, was another $2,400. With her transportation troubles and the need to buy a used car, Sondra couldn't afford to get in the door.
She had to find a way, she knew - both for herself and the kids.
That's when she reached out to JFCS of the Suncoast.
Jill Allen, a case manager with JFCS's Building Strong Families Program, was struck by Sondra's work ethic and her history of juggling studies and multiple jobs.
"I remember thinking she was very determined in her life to do a good job and take care of her kids," Allen said.
Through Allen's help, Sondra applied to Season of Sharing, which paid $1,500 to the landlord for the first month's rent while Sondra covered the deposit.
She and the kids moved into the Bradenton apartment this September, though the kids will get to stay in their Sarasota schools for stability.
"I don't think I'm moving ever again," Sondra said laughing.
She hopes to take more classes down the road in both cosmetology and nursing, possibly to become an RN.
But for now, after a grueling couple of years, she'll focus on her two jobs and plans to save up to treat the kids to another road trip to the Orlando area - maybe this time with a stop at Legoland.
She is proud of all she has accomplished for her tight-knit household. Recently her son's teacher emailed her about a poem he wrote - describing his pride for her, too.
"It makes it all worth it," she said - that and seeing her kids thrive at school, including her daughter's success at her military academy.
Sondra, now 41, is not done working for them. For many years, she notes, she only had herself to count on for her education. It will be different for them, she let them know. She will have their back, helping them financially, as long as they are working hard to better themselves.
"I told the kids, 'you go to college, I will always be there for you.'"
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
How to help
You can donate to Season of Sharing by going to cfsarasota.org or calling 941-556-2399. You can also mail a check to Season of Sharing, Community Foundation of Sarasota County, 2635 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34237.
Read the story as it originally appeared on Nov. 8, 2023, in the Sarasota Herald Tribune.