Purpose amid hardship: Season of Sharing helps Venice child welfare worker find stability

Categories: Stories of Impact, Season of Sharing,

Erin Flanagan can remember when the light bulb went off.

Through her childhood in Northeast Pennsylvania, her family was filled with firefighters and chiefs. She became an EMT herself at the age of 16.

“I kind of grew up at the firehouse,” she recalls.

By the time she was a college student at the University of Tampa, her career path seemed clear – as a pediatric emergency room physician.

But there was a hitch: the natural sciences. While Erin struggled with classes in genetics, she lit up in her elective courses on human development and families.

“This is it,” she thought, changing her major and concentration to the social sciences while working simultaneously at the Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center.

Later she would see this as divine intervention – starting her on a path to help families and children thrive in stable homes, even as she fought to find one herself.

A calling with kids

It was during a break from school, staying with her family, that Erin gave birth to her son, Aiden, in early 2009.

Living with her parents, she knew something needed to change when they announced their plans to move out of state.

Though she held a good county job working in child welfare, the salary would not be enough to support her and Aiden as a single mom over a longer term. She must finish her degree, she decided.

Back in Tampa, they lived in a small apartment while she continued studying. With resources tight, she walked with Aiden 20 minutes to nearby parks, where she met people who would become close friends and introduce her to their church.

“Even the darkest moments have purpose,” she would later think.

After graduation in 2011, Erin continued to plant both professional and social roots in Tampa Bay – working for child and social welfare agencies like Operation PAR and Lutheran Services.

As a case manager for one agency, she established close bonds and trust, including with one woman who would later reach back out, asking her to take custody of her child.

Erin did just that when the baby was two days old, officially adopting daughter Madison in 2015.

“The Lord has given me a passion for kids,” she said. “If I could take a bunch of them home, I would.”

For the next several years, Erin worked in various child welfare roles, and moved briefly to Arizona to be close to her parents.

Back in Tampa Bay in 2018, she found housing costs on the rise. Despite a good salary in family support service work, Erin struggled to juggle it all.

Then in the fall of 2021, her Tampa apartment complex delivered bad news: they weren’t renewing her lease.

“I had a heck of a time finding anywhere,” she said.

Prices were soaring, while inventory was limited. By the time she could finish a tour of an apartment unit, it would be snatched up.

She eventually moved in with close friends in Venice, but her job and the support system for her kids – both with special needs – were all in the Tampa Bay region.

While Erin worked to help bring stability to families and children, she tried to do the same for her own.

“Being a renter doesn’t always give you a lot of stability.”

Erin was determined to make the best of it. She worked at home several days and commuted up to two hours one way to offices in Pinellas or Pasco once or twice a week.

Madison started school, and soon what was supposed to be a temporary situation was lasting months. The rental picture in Sarasota County was as bleak if not worse than that in Tampa Bay.

By the spring of 2022, Erin, a supervisor in foster care licensing for a Tampa Bay agency, was making her highest salary yet.

“But I feel like I’m still just making ends meet because of the cost of living going up,” she said.

The best we can

Finally, Erin found a two-bedroom apartment she could afford in Venice, for close to $1,900 a month. But it required thousands more in deposits and move-in costs.

SchoolHouse Links connected her to Family Promise of South Sarasota County, which paid close to $1,900 for one of the deposits and applied to Season of Sharing for $1,800 for the first month’s rent. The aid allowed Erin to save up to afford the rest.

“We were so excited to help her,” said Kim Ulrich, program manager at Family Promise. “She’s a sweet mom and absolutely adores her children.”

Like many working families finding themselves “couch-surfing” or living with family and friends amid the housing crisis, Erin’s salary is too high to allow her to qualify for many programs.

“She had the long-term goals, it was just getting her over that hump to get her to that place where she was self-sufficient and self-sustaining again,” Ulrich said.

In their new apartment, the kids get their own rooms, decorating them just as they like. She fills weekends with fun adventures to the parks and holiday season trips to neighborhoods to check out the lights.

She hopes to eventually move the kids back up to Tampa Bay and one day buy a house.

“I just want that stability for them; it’s been a hard road.”

For now, she’s focused on the present, and all they can do to make it feel like home.

“I think,” she said, “we have to grow where we’re planted.”