By PENNY FLETCHER
Some have been beaten; others evicted.
Sometimes, a single event happened without warning, like getting pink-slipped because your employer has closed-up shop.
Whatever the reason, abused or homeless women and their children have a home-away-from-home at the Mary & Martha House shelter in Ruskin.
The shelter’s main problem is that it stays full. The need is always greater than the capacity to help.
But there are many success stories, and that keeps staff and volunteers going even when things get tight.
Anna, for instance, left her abusive husband sometime this past year.
“Now there’s a real success story,” said the shelter’s on-site program services manager, Laurie Herring. “When she came to us she had been sleeping in her car with her 15-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. She hadn’t worked in a long time because her husband paid the bills. But he was abusive, and she finally got up the nerve to leave.”
Anna took a manager’s training course and got a job shortly afterward, Herring said.
“She successfully made it through the shelter and transitional housing and has since moved into her own apartment. She saved, and paid all her deposits. That’s what we like to see happen for these women.”
The stay in the shelter usually lasts about three months, but under certain circumstances it can be longer. Meanwhile, staff helps them sign up for whatever they qualify for from the state, including education, food stamps and medical assistance.Then the women move into transitional housing.
That gives them a chance to budget, save up money, and get jobs that will support them and their children.
“It isn’t easy,” Herring said. “But we try and help them learn to budget with whatever resources they can get so that they can learn to be self-sufficient.”
Transitional housing usually lasts about six months after they leave the shelter but that can vary, too.
“As long as they’re making a real effort, we stick with them,” Herring said.
They get to go to the Rose Boutique, run by Jan Falcione who has a fashion background. The clothes there are donated, and Falcione makes them into snappy outfits, matching up blouses with skirts and pants and suit jackets and throwing in some flair with jewelry and scarves and other accessories.
“It’s a big thing to know you look good when you’re applying for a job,” Falcione said in an interview awhile back.
The Rose Boutique is one block east of U.S. 41 on Shell Point Road and is open to the public as well. To say the least, it’s extremely fashionable, and gives the feeling you’re in a nice, although small, department store. Proceeds go to the shelter and its programs.
The Mary & Martha House is run by Executive Director Laurie Kepler who says they stay busy trying to make a homey setting for the women and children while getting them ready to go off on their own.
Knowing it’s hard for children to be away from their friends — and especially their homes and everything and everyone they know — on Christmas, a special effort to decorate and have a home-style holiday is made each year.
This year, Santa and Mrs. Claus visited on Dec. 18 after tree trimming and decorating by the women was finished.
Each child got to make a wish list in advance and volunteers in the community did their best to make those wishes come true.
“The Arbors in Apollo Beach is a community group that does a lot for us,” Herring said. “They bought gifts for the children specifically from the list. They also help us out with our ‘behavioral bucks’ program that we started so children could do chores and earn a trip to a store to buy their mother a gift.
“This gives them a little choice and that’s a good thing because there are so many cultures and everyone is different,” Herring said.
Some members from the community took the mothers shopping so they could each pick out one specific gift for each child.
This year, the shelter has held 26 families; a total of 64 people. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it isn’t a huge building — it’s just a house.
Many have gone from there into transitional housing.
“The goal is not for them to look for jobs in and around Ruskin where the shelter is, but to look for jobs in the area where the woman eventually wants to live,” Herring explained.
Beth said she didn’t feel safe in her home area, so a Tampa ministry paid for three nights in a motel for her and her two young children before she could get to the Mary & Martha House.
Fortunately, a room had just become available and Beth and her two children got a clean room in a safe place just in time for Christmas.
But the help Beth’s receiving doesn’t end there. With the help of staff and volunteers at the shelter, she landed a county office job which she says she’s sure she’ll enjoy and is set to start working right after Christmas.
“The New Year looks better,” Beth said.
Ashley is an example of an older woman whose children are grown but ended up homeless when she lost her job.
Another young woman found herself in the shelter because her mother’s small home just wouldn’t accommodate her and all her young children.
“There are as many stories as there are guests,” Herring said.
The one thing to remember is that the needs do not miraculously stop when the holiday season is over.
“We can use help year ’round,” Herring said.
To find out more, call the shelter office at 813-641-7027, or visit www.marymarthahouse.org.