When Vicki was 8, they moved to Tennessee. For years it was her goal – and her mother’s, too – to come back. But life got in the way.
Vicki was soon a single mother herself, raising two kids while working as a supervisor at a Tennessee Pride sausage plant.
At 40, when the kids were teenagers, she was diagnosed with cancer and told she had five years to live.
Two-and-a-half years of chemotherapy later, she was in remission.
“I beat that,” she told herself as five years became six, seven and eight.
Refusing to go on disability, she got a job with a sheriff’s office, as a jail supervisor.
By then, her mother – long her best friend, whom she moved to an apartment next door – was in decline. Vicki cared for her until she passed away.
“My whole adult life was wrapped around my mom and kids,” she said.
Back home she and her new husband Doug decided they’d make it work. When in the fall of 2021, he got an online offer for a job north of Tampa in fiberglass, they jumped at the chance.
About to give up
After a month they were still in a motel, unable to find a place to rent.
The prices in Florida hit them like a ton of bricks. Where they left, 70 miles outside of Nashville, she had paid $425 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.
“We knew after COVID it was going to be difficult,” Vicki said of the housing market. “We didn’t realize it was going to be crazy.”
But even in rural counties north of Tampa, options were few and prices skyrocketing.
They found apartments they could afford. But the move-in costs killed the deal – security deposits and first-last months’ rents reaching $5,000 or higher.
Given the motel’s expense, they couldn’t save up. Nor could they afford the cost to return to Tennessee.
Last Christmas was one of the worst of her life. She missed her kids, now in their 20s, and her brothers, too. She and Doug had no extra money to buy enough food, let alone gifts.
“At times we didn’t eat,” she said.
Plus, in the motel room, there was nowhere to cook.
The one she made sure never went without was their Chihuahua, Shantii.
“That’s my child,” she said.
In early 2022, still searching for a permanent home, they discovered Bradenton.
Vicki fell in love right away – the friendliness and smell of the salt air reminded her of the Sanibel of her youth.
Doug got a good job as a warehouse supervisor at a pool business while they stayed at a Motel 6, the room costing $2,000 a month.
Vicki got a job at Goodwill Manasota near Lakewood Ranch.
More money was coming in. But it still wasn’t enough.
Between the hardship and her stress, Vicki lost 50 pounds.
“I have never struggled like this before,” she said. “It was scary because I had seen all the homeless people around here, I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to be one of them.’”
Despite their own difficulties, she and Doug gave them what they could – a bottle of water, a bar of soap, a few extra dollars on hand.
“That could be any one of us,” she said.
Vicki was ready to give up on her dream and head back to Tennessee.
She was in remission, after all, and the stress was affecting her health. She couldn’t deal with another holiday like last year.
And then, out of nowhere, an angel appeared.
Shirley Walker was a life coach at Goodwill Manasota.
Vicki never asked for help or complained about her circumstances, but at some point Shirley found out she was living in a motel.
One day this fall she came to Vicki to talk about it, to tell her there was a way they could assist.
If Vicki and Doug found a place they could afford, Season of Sharing could cover an initial month’s rent.
Within a month, all the paperwork was approved. In November the couple and their chihuahua Shantii moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Preserve at Riverwalk for $1,772 a month.
Vicki’s head was spinning.
“She is my saving grace. She is my angel, Miss Shirley is,” Vicki said.
Many of the people served at Goodwill were already dealing with the hardships of housing when Hurricane Ian exacerbated the crisis, said Margie Genter, vice president of the agency’s mission services.
“When you combine the holiday season with those additional challenges, we know that December is going to be a rough month for many of our community’s most vulnerable residents,” Genter added. “We are very grateful that some of that suffering can be alleviated through programs like Season of Sharing.”
By early December, Vicki had already decorated their apartment with a Christmas tree. This year, there will be gifts underneath. And a big ham dinner on Christmas day.
One of the happiest household members with their new digs is Shantii, who enjoys her daily walks with Doug on the trails through the Preserve.
Vicki, now 50, is glad to have a place of their own – a roof over their heads that’s not a motel. The assistance helped them get caught up and settled, a chance to catch their breath.
And most important of all, she can relax, knowing she can live out her dream, the one she shared with her mother – sitting on the beach and smelling the waves.
To see the full story, as it originally appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Dec. 18, 2022, here.
Photo by Thomas Bender, Herald-Tribune.