Season of Sharing helps Bradenton mother and daughter caught in housing and health crises

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

When she was a girl - long before her stroke and the months living in her car - Dana Welch would gaze up at the night sky and think anything was possible.

Finances were tight after her parents' divorce, when Dana lived with her mom and two siblings. But there was always family around to help, and no one went hungry or without a roof over their heads.

Leading up to graduation from Bradenton's Southeast High School, Dana had big dreams of joining the Air Force.

It was her father's idea - a chance for her to travel the world, to work her way up to a position of importance in a sharp-looking uniform.

Given her love of the constellations, maybe she would get a job in navigation, Dana thought.

"I was always interested in the moon and the stars," she said. "I was planning my future then."

Before she could sign up, Dana found out she was pregnant. No one told her she could still try for her dream, so instead, after graduation, she found employment at Arby's and Winn-Dixie.

"I had to rearrange my life," she said, "from the things I wanted to do, to the things I had to do at the time."

She couldn't yet see how long it might take - or what she would go through - before she looked skyward again.

Ready for 'my best life'

Dana was in her early 30s, a certified nursing assistant employed as a home health aide, when her fourth child, Latasha, was born. By now Dana had worked up the strength to leave the troubled relationship with the children's father, and she struck out on her own as a single mom.

Still with big goals for herself, she tried to study to be an LPN but was overwhelmed by juggling work, motherhood and academics. That got harder after a car accident and neck surgery that left lingering pain in her back and hip.

It felt like every time she tried to get her life on track, another challenge appeared in her path.

But by the time Latasha, the youngest, was older, Dana was ready to branch out. She explored jobs in customer service and data entry, working for a time with her brother's trucking business.

Bigger opportunities followed, including a position she held remotely at the start of the pandemic. But once the St. Petersburg offices reopened, she had to leave it, unable to find reliable transportation.

Later, after her mother passed away and Dana inherited her SUV, the transport helped her job options to increase. She was getting interest from more companies, including a major airline.

At 53, with all the kids grown and gone, Dana was ready to go after what she wanted. Some days her back ached, and the side effects from her blood pressure pills caused dizzy spells and her tongue to swell. She could manage her health on her own, she decided, stopping her medications.

Things were finally getting on track: she would work a good job she liked, live with a friend and save money.

That was the idea, anyway, that Labor Day Weekend of 2022 - as she drove her SUV to a party, ready to turn a new page.

"I was going to live my best life," she said.

Lives on hold

The first time Dana fell, she played it off like she tripped. Five minutes later at the party, Dana fell again, and this time it took three people to get her up.

Her right side was weak as she tried to drive herself back home to her friend's house, using her left hand to steer and left foot to hit the gas and brake.

It was only when she collapsed in her room and her speech became slurred that she recognized the signs of a stroke.

Once stabilized at the hospital, Dana grew depressed. She needed physical therapy and care, but housing came first. After short stints with family, she ended up in her SUV. Her daughter Latasha, now 21, moved to Bradenton to help, quitting her job as a retail assistant manager in Tampa to care for her mom. Having deferred a volleyball scholarship offer during the pandemic, Latasha was preparing her college applications again but now put them to the side.

"She stopped her life to help me," Dana said. "She put her whole life on hold."

During the day, Latasha used the SUV to work Uber Eats and Instacart to save for an apartment, but most money needed to go for food and gas. At night, the two parked on the riverfront - covering themselves with blankets inside the vehicle to stay warm as they slept.

Dana felt her mobility regressing. On one occasion, she fell out of the truck.

After three months of living in the SUV, she talked aloud to God between her sobs.

"I'm asking you to help me out, Jesus," she prayed.

An eye on the stars

The care navigators at Turning Points noticed the young woman always wearing a smile as she helped her mother in the lobby.

Latasha and Dana had found the Bradenton nonprofit as a place to shower and have a hot meal as well as to inquire about housing help.

Jessica Godfrey, one of the care navigators, listened to their story and said there was something she might be able to do.

A week later, a non-elderly disabled voucher from HUD became available to help cover part of their rent. The two just needed to find a unit. What's more, there was a way over part of the hurdle of saving to get in the door. Season of Sharing would cover rent for the first month.

"When she said that, I couldn't believe it at first," Dana said.

In October, mother and daughter moved into a small two-bedroom unit in southern Manatee County.

"It hasn't hit me yet that we got our own place," Dana says, a week after moving in.

Now with their housing stable, she has started booking physical therapy appointments.

She's relieved to know that Latasha has resumed her college applications, Dana says, sitting at a small table in the kitchen, tears flowing. Hearing her from several rooms away, Latasha swoops in to check on her mom, wrapping an arm around Dana's shoulder.

Latasha now plans to specialize in physical therapy at college, inspired by what her mother went through.

"This is only the beginning," Latasha says about their new lease on life, smiling before breaking into her own tears, then apologizing as she steps out of the room.

Dana looks stricken. It's the first time since the start of the past year's ordeal that she has seen Latasha get emotional.

"She never cries," she says softly.

Then Latasha is back, smiling again, embracing her mother.

"Now that I know she's ok, that we're ok, I don't have to worry and stress," Latasha says. "I've been so happy since we've been here."

For Dana, now 54, she is determined to get her life on track, starting with her health. She is grateful to her youngest daughter and everyone who helped put a roof over their heads.

The best part of the apartment is the back porch.

She likes to go out there after the sun goes down. It's where she can relax, and look up into the sky, with all her favorite stars in view.