Moving mountains: Bradenton mom gets help from Season of Sharing in rebuilding her life

Categories: Stories of Impact, COMMUNITY CARE: Placemaking: Housing, Transportation & Economic Support, Season of Sharing,

Tiffany Baugher had a lot of time to worry as the bus barreled west across Interstate 10.

That early summer day of 2022 – as she rode from Florida to a Louisiana faith-based drug rehab program – everything felt wrong in her life.

Within the past year, Tiffany's mother – her rock, the one who took her back time and again – had died of COVID-19, five years after the death of Tiffany's dad.

Since then, Tiffany, in her early 30s and addicted to crystal meth, had relapsed over and over. She'd wound up in jail multiple times, becoming estranged from all three of her kids.

A knot formed now in the pit of her stomach as she thought about her oldest, Kelsey, the daughter who had stuck by Tiffany's side even as all other relatives had given up hope.

"I failed her," Tiffany thought, watching the landscape blur by. But it was her middle daughter, Maddie, who made her heart ache. Maddie had been the one to witness some of the ugliest days of Tiffany's addiction.

Still, even as Tiffany wrestled with anxiety about her upcoming rehab stay – the first time she was ever this far from home – she figured she would be back to Florida soon enough to make it up to them all.

From her seat, she dialed her sister, who temporarily had custody of Maddie while the other two girls stayed with their fathers.

That's when Tiffany heard the news that hit her square in the chest: Tiffany's custody rights to Maddie had been cut for good. Despondent and shaking, she wanted off the bus, out of the program.

"I can't do this," she told her seat partner. "I lost my kid. I'm done."

The kind stranger, who'd come to hear parts of her story during the long ride, tried to calm her. She had to go on with the program, he counseled. It was her best shot of getting her life on track, or any chance to see her daughters again. Deep inside, she knew he was right.

When the bus hissed to a stop, pulling up to its destination, Tiffany – homeless, feeling defeated and completely alone – dried her tears and stepped down into the light, heading for the center's front doors.

Hitting rock bottom

Growing up, Tiffany had been part of a big extended family rooted in Mulberry – a tiny rural town in Polk County, once at the heart of the phosphate mining boom.

Tiffany was a middle child of eight kids between both sides of her divorced and remarried parents. Her mom's house was always full of laughter, fighting and commotion between her siblings and their friends. But sometimes Tiffany could feel lost in the bustle of it all.

Trauma struck her as a young teen when she was sexually abused by an older family friend – something she felt her family wanted to sweep under the rug.

Through high school she was drawn to abusive guys. To numb a manic feeling inside, she drank heavily and smoked marijuana. By 18, she was a high-school dropout and pregnant, moving out of her mom's home and in with the baby's father, whom she married.

But instead of starting a stable family life she wanted, she turned to more drugs. First, it was pain pills. Then at 24 – by then divorced and the mother of three daughters – she tried crystal meth at the urging of a friend.

"It destroyed my life," she'd later say.

In the grip of addiction, she spiraled into chaos. Through her late twenties, she lurched between meth highs and violent fights with the men in her life.

When not high, she was impatient – yelling at the girls if they called or texted her too much.

As her father grew ill with cancer, she lied and told him she was clean, though she weighed 73 pounds. After he died in 2016, Tiffany couldn't face her grief.

She tried to get sober but relapsed, over and over. Before binges, she'd leave her daughters in her mother's care, fearing – even in the haze of addiction – that they'd be exposed to the brutal side of her street life. Each time she was ready to come back, she knew her mother would take her in.

"I never had to hit rock bottom," she'd say.

Then, in September 2021, when her mother died from Covid-19, Tiffany unraveled.

By now her family was kicking her out of their homes. After a domestic fight following the funeral, someone called the cops. Tiffany was arrested – a horrible scene that played out in front of Maddie – and Tiffany went to jail for the very first time.

Things would be different, she told the kids when she got out weeks later. She wanted to believe it. So did her oldest, Kelsey, who defended her to the family.

But without her mom, Tiffany felt worse than ever. Her last refuge was gone.

Between court dates, she was homeless, leaving the girls with their fathers and relatives. At night, sleeping outside, she would kneel on the ground and look up at the stars, begging God for help out of this hell, to move mountains so she could get her life back.

But over the next six months, she was arrested two more times. Sitting in the Polk County Jail, Tiffany recalled hearing about the rehab program in Louisiana.

"I've got to find more information. I've got to do something," she thought. Upon her release from jail, her church pastor picked her up. The next day she was on the bus to Louisiana.

Earning privilege to be 'momma'

The first few days at the residential rehab program, Tiffany was reeling. When she could use her phone, Kelsey tore into her for letting her down. One by one Tiffany had lost her daughters: first the oldest and the youngest, Dakota, had gone to stay with their dads. And now she'd lost Maddie to her sister, who'd moved to North Carolina.

But slowly, Tiffany felt herself grow quiet. And more determined. She had finally hit rock bottom, and she was ready to change.

"When everything is literally ripped away from you," she said, "and your parents pass away and your kids are gone and you have nobody, absolutely nobody in the world, you sit down with God and have time to think."

For the first time in her life, Tiffany experienced structure. The women had to rise early, at five, for morning prayers. Usually, they were led by one of the residents, who would climb to the podium and call out the prayer, while a sea of other women answered her back.

Their days included Bible study, classes and a steady job – another first for Tiffany. Hers was in the thrift store. With the help of a 12-step program, the center's homework, and therapy, Tiffany – by then diagnosed with PTSD and bipolar disorder – started gaining tools to address the broken pieces inside of her. And also the loss of her parents.

"I had to accept that my parents were gone," she said. Her head clear, she also faced what her daughters might be going through.

"Man, this is the pain my babies feel without me."

When she was allowed to get back to her cell phone, its silence crushed her. No one was calling or leaving texts. But she understood she had a lot of work to do to gain back their trust and respect, and the privilege to be called "momma" again.

By the end of the program, it was Tiffany who was the one, after rising at 5, to regularly climb up to the podium, her voice soaring out over the heads of the other women, and theirs roaring back in response.

Right on time

Few seemed happy to see Tiffany when she returned to Florida at the end of 2022.

That included Kelsey, whose 15-year birthday party Tiffany had raced back to be able to attend on time. Tiffany swallowed the hurt, understanding the damage she had caused her children, and her siblings, too.

"Yeah, we'll see," her brother, a school teacher, told her when she stood on his front stoop to share the news of her graduation from the Louisiana program and her seven-month sobriety stretch.

But Tiffany was determined to stay on track. After a brief stint at the home of a step-parent, she needed a place to live. Her pastor once again pointed the way: Freedom House in Bradenton.

Last February, within a day of settling into the nonprofit sober living and life skills home, Tiffany had found a job, too – at Goodwill Manasota.

With her thrift store experience, she thrived in the supportive environment of Goodwill, where she was assigned a Good Partner Coach to help her with her life and career goals.

Tiffany had a lot of them. First was finding a more permanent place to live. She was ready to stretch her wings of independence.

With a close friend from Goodwill, she moved into a shared house, renting a single bedroom and hoping eventually for something larger. She worked up quickly at her job from greeter to furniture pricer. She started GED classes.

Meanwhile, getting blisters from walking to work every day, she needed a car. Her pastor helped again, matching Tiffany's and her friend's savings so they could put down $1,000 for a 2017 Chevy Cruiser.

As the months clipped by into 2023, word of her progress spread in her family. Kelsey started talking and visiting first. Then Dakota, turning 11, was ready for visits. Little by little, Maddie, by then 13, was calling, too.

Then this past summer, after Tiffany passed her one-year sobriety anniversary, she got the best news combination of all. First, she learned that a private landlord working closely with Freedom House had an apartment available. And then in one of her calls, Maddie announced she wanted to come home.

Tiffany's heart burst with joy.

"Our God is an on-time God," she said.

Back home

With her sister's agreement, Tiffany drove to North Carolina and brought Maddie back.

But there remained the question of getting into the apartment.

Tiffany and her friend had saved $1,000 for the deposit. Tiffany just needed a boost with part of the first month's rent.

That's where Season of Sharing helped – tapped by Goodwill Manasota on Tiffany's behalf. It paid about $800 toward August's rent. Right after, Tiffany and Maddie moved in.

Since then, Tiffany has stayed sober and kept at her job, programs and GED classes. She has petitioned the court for the official return of her full parental rights. She's building on the structure that she learned at the Louisiana program.

"I went to God's boot camp. He trained me in many ways," she said. "I'm 35 years old and only now learning how to live on my own."

She loves it when her daughters blow up her phone with messages.

"Now I'm the one in the family that everyone calls," she said. "I used to be a mean person. I have a lot of patience today."

She's learning how to think through decisions and respond instead of react. After she gets her GED, she hopes to study to become an RN and also to be a peer mentor for others battling addiction.

"I've got goals," she said.

The main one is to stay sober. Another big one is to save for a house – a place that's big enough for all her girls to visit or stay. Already, Kelsey, 16, is talking about possibly living with her while going to college.

"I'm trying to work really hard to bring them all back together."

But first, she's putting in the work to repair her broken relationships.

Recently Tiffany visited her brother again. Standing outside once more, trembling with nerves, she told him about her job, her car, her classes, her 21 months of sobriety – and most of all, that Maddie was home. Seeing her nervousness, he softened.

"Why are you shaking?" he asked, breaking into a smile before he hugged her and told her he loved her.

In her relationship with Maddie, now 14, Tiffany takes it day by day. She allows her space and time.

Sometimes, given all her mistakes, Tiffany still marvels that this child is back in her arms.

"She came to me, and now she calls me mommy again. She tells me she loves me, things that took me a really long time to earn," Tiffany said.

"God moved that mountain."

How to help

Season of Sharing was created 22 years ago as a partnership between the Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to get emergency funds to individuals and families on the brink of homelessness in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. There are no administrative fees and no red tape – every dollar donated goes to families in need to help with rental assistance, utility bills, child care and other expenses.

You can donate to Season of Sharing by going to 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.

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 .