New parents in Englewood steady their nest with help from Season of Sharing

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

Even as a young girl, Leanne Font knew she wanted to be a mom someday.

Growing up in South Florida in a large Cuban family, Leanne was surrounded by tons of relatives with little ones all around. She loved taking care of baby cousins. She changed their diapers and brought them to the park.

Through high school and JROTC, Leanne thought she might one day have a career in the Air Force. Raising a family was in that picture, too.

Her love of kids was shared by one of her best friends, Keli, who was like a sister to her – then literally part of the family when Keli married Leanne's older brother, Jesus.

Throughout Leanne's childhood, during which she was mostly raised by her dad, Leanne had been close to Jesus, who was wise and quick to offer words of wisdom.

"If I ever needed anything, I knew I could rely on him," she said. "He always gave me advice and taught me about life and working hard and being good to people."

By Leanne's early 20s, Jesus and Keli had moved away to West Central Florida, eventually settling in North Port with their two young sons and baby girl. Most of Leanne's family followed while Leanne continued on in Miami, getting married and working for a chiropractor doing medical billing.

When her marriage ended in divorce in her mid-20s, Leanne moved into the home of a close relative to get her bearings. That's where she met a young man named Amrin, who was also going through a tough patch in his life.

Leanne wasn't looking for romance, but a friendship blossomed that led to official dates and a budding relationship.

Eventually, the two found a nice efficiency in Homestead for $850 a month.

Life was hectic for the next two years thanks to Leanne's long commutes through Miami traffic to her job at the chiropractor's office, but she did her best to carve out time for family.

For Easter of 2019, she was planning to join relatives for a gathering in Homestead.

The evening before, she was exhausted. Many nights she found it hard to sleep after Amrin left for his late shift working in security. She heard her phone buzzing. It was Jesus, messaging her on social media.

"I'll talk with him later," she thought at first. Then for some reason she changed her mind. "No, I'll answer."

The two wrote back and forth about fitness. Both had started losing weight. As always, Jesus was being supportive and offering advice. After a bit, Leanne signed off, her final words, "Don't worry, we can just motivate each other."

The next day, on Easter, at the family gathering, she got a call: Jesus and Keli had been involved in a crash. Leanne tried to process the words. Flipped Jeep. Malfunctioning seatbelts. Jesus had died at the scene.

"I just collapsed," Leanne recalled. "One day you are talking to your brother and the next day he is gone."

Keli had survived and was fighting for her life at the hospital. Leanne and Amrin raced across Alligator Alley, but when they pulled into the hospital parking lot, Leanne got a text from a relative: Keli was gone, too.

Building a nest

Reeling from grief, Leanne and Amrin moved to North Port to be closer to family and her nephews and niece – one of Leanne's other brothers took them in to raise with his other children.

Leanne sought comfort in Jesus' church. Many Sundays she sat in the pews, weeping, asking God for a sense of peace.

Enveloped in family once more, Leanne sought to fulfill that old dream of raising her own children. She and Amrin married, and after a year of trying to have children were diagnosed with fertility challenges. Intent on becoming a mom, Leanne opted for in-vitro fertilization, and Amrin agreed.

By then they had found a beautiful one-bedroom cottage in North Port with a big backyard for $900 a month. But heading into 2021, the cottage's owner announced plans to sell within a year. They had to find another place.

Down the street, the rent for a two-bedroom house shot up from $1,000 a month to $1,500 a month. The couple laughed, asking each other, "Who is going to pay that?"

But the more they looked around, they quickly got an answer. Many people were paying that and much more, as rents began to soar. Leanne and Amrin had loved North Port, with its huge skies, beautiful sunsets, family-friendly environment and reasonable cost of living, which they could afford on their salaries – Leanne's from work at a chiropractor's office and Amrin's as a pharmacy tech while he also studied radiography.

But North Port, like the rest of the region and state, was changing. Expecting to start a family, Leanne and Amrin needed another nest – and fast.

When a two-bedroom apartment became available in Englewood for almost $1,400 a month, they jumped on it, sight unseen. They found a new church and settled in.

'Feeling like we were suffocating'

During Leanne's pregnancy last year, the couple socked away money from gifts and savings so that she could take time off from work after the delivery.

They had learned a surprise about the pregnancy: there would be two babies, not just one.

"Twins!" Leanne had screamed with joy in the doctor's office when they got the news.

After the birth of Joshua and Isaac in January, Leanne's dream came true. She was a mom, but now with a crushing decision. All she wanted was to be home with the babies. But with skyrocketing costs of rent, food, gas and insurance – added to their medical debt – they couldn't afford it.

Leanne researched new jobs. What type of work could a parent possibly do while caring for two infant twins at the same time? Visiting a local daycare center, she fell in love with it. She could become a teacher there, she thought. After the boys' feedings – as they napped atop of her – she studied for her training and exams.

Working part-time at the center, she and Amrin juggled child care between her shift there and his at the pharmacy. Meanwhile, they reserved spots for the boys at the daycare center for when they turned one.

But then the center had great news. They were opening an infant room. And they were tapping Leanne to work there full time as the caregiver and teacher. Qualifying for childcare assistance through the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County, Leanne was able to enroll the twins into the school and her own classroom.

"God is so amazing he put me in this place," she said. "Why wasn't I doing this before, I love these kids," she said of her infant classroom. "Every week they are learning new things and growing." What's more, she got to be with her own boys.

But there was a major problem. Not only had the couple run through their savings during the few months that Leanne took off work following childbirth, her new job at the daycare came with a pay cut compared to her previous employment. Heading into the summer, it was clear to Leanne and Amrin that they were running out of money.

"We were just feeling like we were suffocating," she said. "Sometimes we weren't even making it paycheck to paycheck."

In June, it hit them. They wouldn't be able to cover July's rent. How could they lose their housing with two infants to care for? Leanne had always wanted to be a mom, and now that she was, her family was drowning.

'The greatest job I ever had'

After a desperate search, Leanne was referred to 2-1-1, which steered her to Family Promise of South Sarasota County. There, case managers told her they had a way to help her family over this hump.

They tapped into Season of Sharing, which paid $1,500 to cover July's rent and help the couple reset.

The assistance has allowed the pair to get their head above water, Leanne said, but the budget is still tight. And they fear what could happen if they get hit with a major rent increase like their neighbors.

They would like to move back to North Port – both for the town and to be closer to her nephews, niece and other family. And they would love to buy a house. But they don't think that can happen in Florida, given the housing crisis here. Instead, they might explore Georgia when Amrin finishes his degree.

For now, they are taking life one day at a time. Leanne is grateful to God for the peace she feels at last in her heart. She believes she'll see Jesus and Keli again one day and plans to tell Joshua and Isaac all about their aunt and uncle as they grow older.

She thinks her brother and sister-in-law would be happy for her and the new path she has found working at the daycare.

And she knows they would share in her joy of motherhood – of all she's discovering in her dream of being a mom.

"It's the greatest job I ever had," she said.

To see this story as it originally appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Dec. 10, 2023, click here. Photo provided by the Font family.