Returning home earlier this year to find her utilities shut off and all her furniture gone was quite a blow to Isabelle Speaks, especially since she has spent her life paying gifts forward.
It was something she learned from her mother many years ago.
One of five children, Isabelle had grown up outside Beaufort, South Carolina, harvesting tomatoes with her family, part of a Gullah Geechee community along the lower Atlantic coast.
Her mother imagined big prospects for her youngest child, who was a gifted athlete and conscientious student, though known to be shy.
After high school, according to her mother's wishes, Isabelle left for Job Corps in Knoxville, Tennessee. The teenager thought she was sent away because she wasn't wanted.
The first time in her life away from home, Isabelle rarely talked in large gatherings of girls, some of whom made fun of the Gullah Geechee creole language she spoke.
Isabelle gravitated to other girls perceived to speak in a "different" way and soon she found a strong circle of friends. She excelled in the Corps' military-like exercises and loved her classes in carpentry and culinary arts. Each winter, far from the balmy climate of home, she was enchanted by the first dusting of snowfall.
After four years there, Isabelle joined up with a cousin to try life Atlanta. She lasted a few months in the bustle of the big city.
"I'm going back to the country," Isabelle decided, heading home to the Carolina coast.
Following an apprenticeship with a bridge company – and while working housekeeping on Hilton Head – Isabelle heard from her cousin again, now beckoning from Florida.
The Tropicana company in Bradenton was hiring at the plant, her cousin announced. Isabelle should come on down.
Isabelle did so, in 1989 – her experiences in Job Corps giving her the confidence to try out new places and positions for a time. When she arrived, she saw that Bradenton right then was small-town rural, just the pace that she liked.
While her hours as a seasonal worker were long – 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week – the plant paid better than anything she had ever seen for herself or her parents.
After she took one look at her first weekly paycheck – $3,000, it read – she handed it back.
"That's not mine," she told her supervisor, believing it was a mistake.
The office had to call Isabelle's cousin to help convince her to come pick it up.
It was then that Isabelle understood her mother's decision all those years before.
"I thanked the Lord she sent me," she said about Job Corps and the life and work skills she gleaned, realizing her mother was looking out for her all along. "I thought she didn't love me."
Though not all of her subsequent paychecks were that high, Isabelle sent portions of them home to her mom.
She took care of her own expenses, too, including paying a total of $200 to rent a room for six months near the plant. After the six-month season ended, Isabelle would pack up her Chevy Chevette – her very first car, for which she paid $800 – to drive north and spend the rest of the year with her family.
Her help stayed steady through the years, especially as her mother took in Isabelle's nieces and nephews following the deaths of Isabelle's two sisters – one in a domestic dispute and the other from cancer.
Other times on those trips home, Isabelle aided her mother in caring for Isabelle's brother as he was dying from diabetes complications.
Isabelle was intent on sharing her blessings with strangers, too. After eating at a favorite restaurant, she would slip back in with small envelopes of cash for the waitresses and cook. She wanted them to know their hard work was appreciated.
"I just pay it forward," she said.
By the mid-1990s, Isabelle bought a house for $50,000 – paying a mortgage of $300 a month. She lived there with her young son and the boy's father.
A decade later, by then a single mom and transitioning to year-round 40-hour work weeks at the plant, she could see that the old shotgun house was falling down around her. Praying on it every day, she went for three years to the county to see if she qualified for a home-repair program.
In that third year, the answer was yes. But her house was too far gone for repairs. Instead, it qualified for another program: to be torn down and rebuilt.
When it was complete, she had a third bedroom – and a screened-in porch inspired by her country roots – which meant more space for family. Every summer she drove north to round up her nieces and nephews to bring them south for their vacation.
As the years passed, Isabelle was ready for a change. In 2021 – after 32 years at Tropicana – she decided it was time to hang up her hat.
But within two years of retiring from the plant, she was restless. She was not used to sitting still.
"I love to work. I have to stay busy," she said.
Earlier this year, she took a job at Goodwill Manasota as a sales floor associate.
She lived simply – by now her mortgage paid off. At 59, most of her retirement savings from Tropicana were locked away until a future date. But she kept enough money on hand to get by and still help family with expenses, including weddings.
She gave back in other ways, too, including letting relatives stay with her for a few years until they got on their feet.
But before heading north for a recent visit to her mom in Beaufort, Isabelle let them know it was time to move on.
Several months later, when she got back, she learned that they had done just that. And they had taken all of her furniture with them.
What's more, they had run up the utilities without paying off the balances as promised. Isabelle returned to a darkened house and no water.
"They left me high and dry," she said. "I had to start from scratch."
She managed to get the electric and water turned back on through payments, but from that point, she was perpetually running behind.
After a near-lifetime of helping others, Isabelle now needed some help of her own.
Early this summer, still new at her Goodwill job, Isabelle learned from a co-worker that their employer might have some assistance.
She approached Cate Thorp, a Good Partner Coach, who told her that was true. Thorp admired Isabelle for her strength and her willingness to reach out when she needed "a hand up."
Thorp turned to Season of Sharing – which she was finding to be a "critical" source of assistance this year for employees. Amid the housing crisis, heat wave and transportation woes, it has helped employees with rent assistance, car repairs and past-due utilities, she said.
"It was great to see the relief on their faces when I let them know they were approved," Thorp added.
For Isabelle, that help came to about $800 for water and electric to get her caught up.
Since then she has prayed on her situation with her relatives.
"I have to forgive myself first," she said of allowing them to take advantage of her. The rest, she decided, she has to let go. "I put it in the Lord's hands."
For now, she's focusing on her own life. That includes her health, her finances, her close contacts. Recently, her pastor who was like her second mother, passed away. Isabelle is making new friends at Goodwill.
"I love my job, I just love to be here."
She's constantly on the move, relishing all the walking she does at the store, and in her downtime, she is dusting off her bike to ride on the Riverwalk.
"I've got to take care of me. No one else is going to do that."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org .ea To read it as it originally appeared on Dec. 19, 2023, click here.