A healing path: Season of Sharing helps Bradenton father in life of grief and growth

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

The phone buzzed in Steven Bender's pocket and his handheld radio squawked. "Steven, what is your location?" came the voice of a colleague over the speaker. Steven whisked out the office door, his stocky frame on the move.

A client services coordinator at Bradenton's Turning Points nonprofit, Steven rarely stops. One minute he's helping a client with a job search on the lobby computer, and the next he's dashing to the warehouse to find a bar of soap for someone's shower.

Clients know that the tough-looking employee with the North Philly accent and tattoos on his biceps is someone with whom they can blow off steam. They know he'll listen patiently and won't judge them about what, for many, is the lowest moment of their lives.

They know he's been in the same position they are.

Just over a year ago - homeless and broke, sleeping in vehicles with his girlfriend and their five kids, shouldering a heavy history of trauma and tragedy - Steven sat there in that same lobby at Turning Points and asked for help.

"Best part of my life"

The moment he saw her in the hallway, his insides quaked.

It was the early 1980s, and Steven was 13, a freshman in high school.

Her name was Aurea. She was one year older, her big hair dyed blond and blown out with Aquanet.

Aurea was very pretty, outgoing, smart and kind. When she smiled, Steven knew he'd never be the same.

The two soon became inseparable, holding hands on the roller skating rink as music played by Journey, Madonna and Duran Duran.

Of all the qualities he was growing to love in Aurea, Steven admired the way she never judged him for living on the streets.

He had wound up there after being thrown out of his upper-middle-class home in North Philadelphia by his mother, who tended to unleash her rage on her oldest son after his father's suicide attempt.

Sometimes Steven stayed with his paternal grandmother. Big Mom, as he called her, gave him tough love and old-fashioned advice. But if he arrived after eight o'clock sharp, the door would be locked for the night.

Steven often slept outside: in cars, on park benches, or - with cushions swiped from porch furniture and blankets from people's clotheslines - under an abandoned house.

As Steven and Aurea got closer, she introduced him to her parents, who took him under their wing - letting him shower at their house and feeding him breakfast.

When, 18 months into dating, Aurea became pregnant, Steven promised her parents he'd respond as an adult for her and the couple's baby girl.

After quitting school, the next several years for Steven were a blur of jobs in department stores, fast-food restaurants and car washes. Steven rented rooms and then apartments for their small family while Aurea worked her way through college.

Through their struggles, they grew up together.

"Didn't matter how hard we had it," he said, "our love just got stronger and better."

Into their 20s, now with a son, too, they rented a three-bedroom house for $350 a month.

As the years went by, Steven got a GED and better jobs in manufacturing plants. He started his own detailing business and worked in school district maintenance and with special-needs kids. Aurea was employed by the schools, too, as a teacher's aide.

By their late 20s, they bought a house in Delaware County down the block from Big Mom. They owned three cars and took family vacations to the Poconos, Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Bahamas.

"Life was real good," he said. "It was the best part of my life."

Between busy jobs and raising a family, he and Aurea - they were married by then - carved out romantic dates, sometimes, while out separately with friends at pubs, pretending to meet for the very first time.

"She was my best friend, my lover, my wife."

They were in their early 30s when Aurea started suffering bouts of bronchitis, often winding up in the emergency room.

One morning in 2004, Steven was getting dressed to go buy new wedding bands when he saw Aurea sitting on the bedroom floor. She was breathing into her portable nebulizer, but something seemed worse this time.

When Steven crouched down and reached out to embrace her, she collapsed into his arms. He frantically tried CPR. The paramedics did, too.

At the hospital, an hour later, Steven heard the doctors say nothing more could be done. The machines were turned off. Aurea was gone.

A dark tunnel

The next four years - during which Big Mom died as well - were a dark tunnel of depression.

Steven and the children learned too late from Aurea's relatives of a congenital heart condition running through her family. The information did little to help them cope.

"We didn't know how to live without her," he said. "I didn't know how to raise the kids."

His daughter and son - Natasha and Brandon - cooked and cleaned while Steven barely left the house. He couldn't drive. A plant manager by then, he lost his job, all but his detailing business.

He was hospitalized and put on medications that caused severe side effects. Finally, one therapist made a difference - focusing him on behavioral health to target his past traumas as well as his grief. He began meditating, reading, and practicing breathing exercises and positive self-talk.

By 2011, seven years after Aurea's death, he was off prescription drugs and stable again, working as a restaurant manager in Philadelphia. That's when he met a beautiful woman named Stephanie, a regular at a nearby eatery.

Stephanie, a home health care worker with three children of her own, learned about Aurea and was introduced to the kids. She asked Natasha, now in her 20s, for permission to date her dad.

Before long, the two were living together. Steven learned to open his heart again.

Years passed and a visit to Lakeland in 2019 convinced Stephanie a better life awaited their growing family in Florida's sunshine, far from the hard and cold streets of North Philly. By now engaged, and with two small daughters of their own, the couple decided to move - Stephanie coming first with all five kids to work a retail dispatch job.

Steven, meanwhile, returned to Philadelphia to quit his job and close his business. But when he got back, a deal to buy a mobile home with his savings fell through.

The family stayed in hotels and short-term rentals while Steven searched for a job and apartments - many places out of reach on one income alone.

Most days, Steven took care of the kids - an exhausting job, he was finding, but one he was growing to love.

But then, after the start of the pandemic in 2020, Stephanie fell sick with COVID.

Steven's heart was in his throat as he watched her be admitted to the hospital and placed on a ventilator.

"What happens if she passes away?" he feared. He couldn't go through this a second time.

Car camping

Within a month, Stephanie recovered and was released.

The couple's financial struggles, though, continued to worsen. They were still without a home. And now neither of them had a job.

Hoping for better prospects elsewhere, the family moved to Sarasota and then Bradenton.

Stephanie and Steven worked temporary gigs, their savings by now exhausted.

For shelter, they stayed in their van and truck - the two of them; Stephanie's oldest ones, now 17, 14 and 11; plus their two girls, 2 and 3. Steven tried to turn it into a game, to shield the youngest children from worry.

"I had to tell the kids we were car camping," he said.

Months went by through 2021, their apartment search fruitless as the housing crisis deepened - rents soaring along with lease requirements on income and deposits.

During the hot weeks of summer, Steven was spending $20 a night in gas to keep the parked vehicles running and cool with AC. The younger kids soon grew tired of the game.

"Daddy, I don't want to car camp no more," they'd say.

Steven kept up the ruse. But when he was alone - the girls playing with Stephanie in the park - he rolled up the windows of his truck and sat inside, weeping into his hands.

"I never expected to experience this again," he said of the trauma of his teens, "especially with a family."


Trying all the nonprofits he could, Steven finally was steered to Bradenton's Turning Points.

In the lobby, he met teachers, nurses and a former lawyer - all of them, like him, left homeless, some after a job loss or health crisis.

Between his own hunt for housing, he started to volunteer there, helping other people seeking a place to shower, wash clothes or eat a warm meal. Supervisors noticed his work ethic and his natural rapport with clients. After he applied for a position with the help of CareerSource, Turning Points hired him.

Now with full employment to back up his housing search, he found a landlord with reasonable income requirements. Still, there was the hurdle of the deposit and first month's rent to get in the door.

Turning Points had the answer: Season of Sharing, which paid the first month's rent while Steven handled the rest.

A little over a year ago, the family moved into the four-bedroom, two-bathroom house. With Steven tackling maintenance on the property, they worked out a deal to pay $1,000 a month in rent.

There's a playroom for the kids, a kitchen for hot meals when they want and showers to take as long as they like.

Stephanie found work in a doctor's office and is studying to become a nurse practitioner. They both love their jobs.

"We got blessed," Steven says.

From his experiences, he shares advice with Turning Points clients, who know he's walked the walk.

"You can't let depression hold you down," he tells them. "You can break those chains and create a new normal again."

In his own newfound stability, there's enough left over every month to treat the family to a Chinese buffet and sock some away for savings. He hopes to buy a house within five years.

But for now, Steven, 52, is also focused on providing for his family emotionally - in ways he wasn't able to do for Natasha and Brandon all those years ago when he was working all the time and later struggling with his grief.

"I learned how to be a better parent from my older kids," he says.

The younger girls are now 5 and 4 - with a new baby sister, 8 months old.

He smothers them with love, and when it's playtime, they run to Steven, sometimes before Stephanie.

"I think I've become the mom," he said. "I let them paint their nails. I play sick and they check me. They come out of nowhere to give me kisses. That is something new to me."

He loves having all the kids together. Natasha just moved to Florida, and Steven hopes Brandon soon will do the same.

"I got my family," he says.

For that - and so much more - he is grateful.

"Life is good," he said. "I don't care how bad it is - it's still good."

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 samrhein@gannett.com

How to help

You can donate to Season of Sharing by going to cfsarasota.org 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.