The Friendship that Saved a Family

Posted by Rachel Vogel-Quinn on Mar 6, 2018 12:19:05 PM


Lisa has many lessons to teach her four children.

There’s 13-year-old Solomon—smart but anxious, excited about marine biology. 11-year-old Gabriel loves to read and helps around the house with a smile. Isabella, 7 years old and the only girl, is stubborn and independent—an artist and fashionista. The baby of the family—4-year-old Aziyah—is a natural sweetheart. He plays hard and loves to snuggle. His blond curls attract the family’s hands like a puppy’s fur coat.

Of all the lessons Lisa needs to teach these four before they leave home, by far the most important—in her mind, at least—is how to choose the right partner.

Because Lisa has chosen the wrong romantic partner one too many times. It’s a mistake most of us have made at least once of in our lives.

But for Lisa, the consequences of those mistakes have been severe. Over a decade after the first one, she is still getting her life together—with the help of multiple United Way programs and one tremendous woman who cared enough that she risked their friendship to save her.


Changes Lives

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United Way's HOPE for Stable Families initiative works with central Iowa families each year to set goals, remove barriers, and find support in moving out of poverty to long-term financial stability. The initiative is unique in that it provides comprehensive support to parents and children at the same time, also known as a 2Gen approach.  

Lisa attends the HOPE for Stable Families 2-Generation program at Oakridge Neighborhood Services.

Learn More About HOPE

The Lonely Child

Lisa was born in Altoona, much younger than her two siblings. She spent a great deal of her childhood alone, as neither her parents nor her siblings were around the house very much. To pass the time, she’d take her dog on long walks through the woods.

“I would live in this fantasy world, where I would pretend that I lived in the forest and I would make a little home for us,” Lisa recalls.

Although Lisa enjoyed these imaginative escapes, she would come home to an empty house or to her parents fighting. This kind of loneliness and neglect in childhood can have long-term consequences into adulthood, Iowa research on adverse childhood experiences shows.

After high school, Lisa moved to Iowa City to go to cosmetology school and become a hair stylist. But she fell into the partying scene. A few years later, she started doing cocaine. By the time she began shooting it, things spun out of control. She decided to move to Texas with her boyfriend to start over.

Things went well in Dallas for a while. She broke up with her addict boyfriend, quit cocaine cold turkey, and started working in a salon. But then she met the man who would become her husband. Her friends disliked him from the start. Looking back now, it seems clear to Lisa why they hated him.

“I was drinking a lot with him,” she says. “I lost my job. He had beaten me up a couple times. He was super controlling.”

The Reluctant Bride

After losing her job, Lisa and her boyfriend moved back to Iowa—to Pella—to live with her mom while they got back on their feet. By the time they moved into their own place, Lisa was pregnant with Solomon.

Her mom pushed the couple to get married. Given Pella’s conservative culture, she felt Lisa’s pregnancy outside of marriage would be a scandal. Lisa thought of herself as spontaneous and laid-back, so she agreed—though with reservations.

“My mom wouldn’t have done that if she knew what our relationship was really like,” Lisa says.

Plus, her soon-to-be-husband had cleaned up his act, when she had threatened not to go through with the wedding.

“He kind of held everything in until we got married,” she says. “Then it was an explosion.”

The Misguided Addict

Lisa’s husband was verbally abusive and an alcoholic, but she stayed in the marriage for 5 years for her boys, until she couldn’t take it anymore.

When the divorce was finalized, she lost clients from her hair salon—the only one she has ever owned. She lost more when she started dating Jason (name changed for privacy), who was known around town for being an addict and for holding guns to people’s heads.

Another bad choice in a partner, one she deeply regrets now—as much as you can regret someone who fathered two of your children. Jason was the one who got her addicted to opioids, sometimes called a modern-day plague.

“I had gotten myself off cocaine without rehab, so I thought it would be OK to start taking opioid pills on occasion with Jason to have fun,” Lisa explains with chagrin. “I thought I could just quit on my own.”

“With the opioid addiction, you can’t even stand up. You are physically throwing up. You can’t shake off an opioid addiction.”

Like many others, Lisa fell hard and fast to the addictive power of opioids. Soon, she couldn’t escape the cycle, as much as she tried. And then everything collapsed on her.

It turned out that the local drug task force had been following Jason and had built a case against him. While Lisa was at work, they raided the house with a search warrant and found a slew of drugs. The Department of Human Services (DHS) got involved.

A police officer showed up at Lisa’s salon to announce that her kids were at her mom’s place and that she wasn’t allowed to see them. She had lost custody.

“I was completely devastated,” Lisa says heavily. “That was the worst time of my whole life, the darkest time.

“I can’t even describe the guilt, the shame. Just knowing how I had let my children down. I was supposed to be taking care of them, and I had completely failed at that.”

The Strong Survivor

While Jason was in jail on drug charges, Lisa tapered down on the opioids under her doctor’s direction and was able to get custody of her kids back. When Jason got out, he started using again, and Lisa teetered on the edge of falling under. But she was determined never to find herself in that place again.

“I said, “We can’t do this! We cannot lose our kids again!”

Lisa and Jason started driving to Des Moines every day to go to a methadone clinic. When the driving became too much of a burden—and with Lisa’s clientele decimated—they decided to move the family to Des Moines for good.

Lisa visited the methadone clinic every day until this past October, when she was able to wean herself off methadone—a triumph, considering that some stay on it for much longer.

“I am so glad to get away from opiods,” she says. “It brought me so much pain. It isn’t even fun. You don’t do it because you want to. You do it because you don’t want to be sick.

“That’s no way to live. The toll it takes on your family is just awful.”

Successfully treating their addictions, Lisa and Jason moved into the Sherman Hill neighborhood. She started looking for a child care provider that would take her Child Care Assistance (CCA) benefits. Oak Academy, a United Way-funded child care and early education program at Oakridge Neighborhood Services, was just a few blocks away. She enrolled Isabella, then 3 years old, and Aziyah, just a baby. And she met Vicki Williams, director of adult and family services at Oakridge.

Due to a fluctuating income, Lisa soon lost CCA benefits and had to pull her kids out of Oak Academy. Vicki wondered where they had gone. So she tracked Lisa down and knocked on her front door.

“I said, “What’s going on? We miss you. We miss the kids. And at Isabella’s age, she really needs to be in preschool,’” Vicki recalls of the meeting.

Oak Academy had access to some outside funding, and Vicki offered to pay for Isabella’s tuition so she wouldn’t miss out on preschool at a critical age. Although they didn’t have funding for Aziyah, she promised to hold his spot and work with Lisa to get him back in.

Soon Lisa was able to get CCA benefits back, and both kids were again enrolled in Oak Academy.

The Independent Woman

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Vicki Williams, director of adult and family services
at Oakridge Neighborhood.

With addiction beat, Lisa working at two different salons in the area, and her youngest kids in Oak Academy, things were looking up for her and her family. But there was something holding her down, something that she couldn’t see. Fortunately, Vicki noticed.

“From my perspective,” says Vicki, “what I saw was Lisa being held down by Jason. He wasn’t helping, in any kind of way—monetarily, as a father, as a partner, nothing. But because she was reporting his income, it was keeping her from being able to access resources that she needed.”

Vicki took Lisa aside for several conversations over the course of a couple weeks to talk through her relationship. Jason was more than idle around the house and tight-fisted with his money. He was outright verbally abusive to Lisa.

“I said, ‘Why Lisa? You have to think about your kids. Is this the example you want your boys to have: that when they grow up, this is how they are to treat a woman or a partner in their life? And you have a daughter. Is this the example you want your daughter to have? That this is what she can expect and what she should settle for in a life partner?”

That message clicked for Lisa. Seeing Jason’s behavior from her kids’ point of view suddenly made it unacceptable.

“I was trying to take care of him, too,” Lisa explains. “I was trying to save him, and he didn’t want to be saved. He was poisoning my life and my kids’ lives.

"Being able to cut that off and presenting that opportunity to be able to change my life where I didn’t have to be dependent on this poison—that was a pivotal moment for me.”

The trust built between Lisa and Vicki over the years—starting back with that first home visit to offer Isabella a spot back in Oak Academy—had grown into a relationship where Vicki felt she could speak the truth and not be spurned. She knew Lisa knew she cared.

“Miss Vicki, she’s so awesome,” says Lisa. “She’s worked with me so many times. She has cut me so many breaks. I like that she tells you what she really thinks. I need that sometimes. I didn’t really have somebody who would tell me that.”

That kind of social support is key to overall health and well-being. United Way of Central Iowa tracks social well-being—including supportive relationships, loneliness, and stress—as one of five factors that influence the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index score that is tied to our Community Health Goal for 2020.

“Lisa just needed a little support,” says Vicki. “Most of the credit goes to Lisa herself. She’s the one that ultimately made the decision.”

The Conscientious Student

Lisa2-1.jpgAfter leaving Jason in the fall, Lisa and the kids moved into a new apartment near Gray’s Lake. With a walk-out patio, a dishwasher, and access to an outdoor pool for the kids, the apartment feels like a haven similar to the fantasy one she imagined as a child in the woods. Only better, because it’s filled her children.

In October, Vicki offered Lisa another opportunity: a place in Oakridge’s United Way-funded 2Gen program, which is focused on working with both the parents and the children at the same time, so that as parents become more financially stable, those benefits transfer to the children.

“I was excited when she offered a space for me in the class because I knew I needed it really bad,” says Lisa. “There are just things that I never knew how to do that I really needed to learn.”

Every Wednesday, the 2-Gen participants meet for class—including dinner and child care for the young kids. So far, they’ve covered financial literacy and food and nutrition. Lisa says she has learned how to budget, where to access financial resources, how to raise her credit score, and the importance of saving.

“I really cut out a lot of unnecessary spending because of that class,” she says.

Vicki has participants come in with bags of receipts, and they go through their purchases one by one, analyzing spending behavior. Vicki is able to point out problematic decisions—like going to the grocery store 12 times in one week or buying a candy bar every day. Most of the participants have never had any financial education before—and have never made a budget or looked at their monthly spending. Doing so can help stretch income across a month’s worth of bills.

Lisa3.jpgIn the nutrition class—taught by Iowa State University Extension & Outreach—the participants learned about meal preparation, making economical meals, using grocery lists, and cooking healthy. In the next section, they will cover parenting, which Lisa is particularly excited about.

Vicki says that Lisa has done exceptionally well in the 2Gen program—never even missing a class.

“Whatever I suggest, she does it. She is eager to receive some direction, some instruction, and she follows through,” says Vicki.

“Lisa is energetic. She’s a go-getter. She works hard. She’s a positive person. And she’s really trying.”

Vicki is quick to point out that the 2Gen program, which will soon be blended with United Way’s Hope for Stable Families program, is “not about throwing money” at the participants.

“I tell them,” says Vicki, “’If you think all I’m gonna do is pay this and pay that, you’re wrong. If you get into a real bind and there’s no other way, we will help you. But it’s about learning what other resources there are and how you can problem-solve.’ Lisa has done that.”

The Role Model

The 2Gen program, in its emphasis on the entire family, mirrors United Way’s commitment to breaking the generational cycle of poverty. That means finding job and financial security for the parents, while ensuring quality educational and social activities for the kids. With this model, the children are more likely to grow up and attain higher academic and career milestones than their parents—escaping poverty for themselves and their children.

“I don’t want my kids to have to worry about how they are going to pay the rent or the bills,” says Lisa. “I want them to be able to have a good job. I want them to make better choices than I did—and learn from my mistakes. I want them to be self-functioning and not reliant on anybody. I want them to thrive.”

Book buddy - Aziyah.jpgLisa’s success is part of that, but so are the programs they kids are enrolled in now. Four-year-old Aziyah, in addition to attending United Way-funded Oak Academy, also takes part in United Way’s Book Buddy program, where volunteers come twice a week to read a book with him for 20 minutes and teach him basic literacy skills. At the end of each week, he gets to take a copy of the book home with him.

Lisa says Aziyah is always excited to tell her when he sees his Book Buddy at school. And when he brings his new book home on Fridays, he asks her to read it to him. This family reading time is another goal of the program. Lisa says she has seen his literacy skills improve over the course of the year.

First-grader Isabella, who also went through Book Buddy, attends United Way-funded Project Oasis, an after-school program at Oakridge Neighborhood. Project Oasis is focused on providing engaging academic and social/emotional learning for kids outside of school, and Isabella loves it.

“She’s doing very well in school, so I think it’s helping her—socially, too,” says Lisa. “And I get to work until 5 instead of 2 or 3 and know that she’s safe. So it definitely helps me.”

The Nurturing Mother

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It’s been a long journey to sobriety, emotional balance, and financial stability, but Lisa and her kids have finally turned a corner.

Still, Lisa describes herself as “teeter-tottering on the verge” of making enough money each month to pay the bills. She’s not putting anything in savings yet; she can’t afford to. And she can’t always provide the things she’d like to for her kids: like the much-requested karate classes for Isabella.

Still, they’ve reached a kind of hectic peace. After school and work, there’s the YMCA for fitness classes on Tuesday and Thursday, 2Gen class on Wednesdays. Then home for dinner and family time—playing games, roughhousing on the couch, which turns into snuggling. Lisa loves to just chill at home with her kids. They keep her going—kept her going during the darkest days.

Lisa is working toward short-term goals: paying down debt, opening her own salon again, buying a house. But her long-term dreams are all focused on her kids.

“I’ve been in some bad places in my life,” she admits. “I’ve made a lot of bad choices that negatively affected not just me, but my kids. I am really trying hard to get back on track so that they have a good life and are not too affected now by what I put them through in the past.”

Lisa is adamant that no stigma be attached to her kids because of her bad choices. Especially now that she is working so hard to fix them.

“People don’t have bad circumstances because they are bad people,” she says. “Some people really are trying to get a leg up or a foothold, and it’s just hard. Maybe you’ve dug yourself a hole, maybe someone else put you there, but if you don’t have a helping hand, it’s really hard to get out.

“Everybody makes mistakes in their lives. Just the fall-out from that is different."


Lisa has paid dearly for her mistakes—especially that common mistake of choosing the wrong partner. Those mistakes upended her family’s life like she never could have imagined. But with the help of other compassionate people, she has been able to climb out of the hole. And she’s finally starting to forgive herself.

“I am just starting to be proud of myself, just recently,” she says. “I felt like I didn’t deserve all the benefits I’ve been given. I know my kids do, but I guess I do too. I deserve a good life. I deserve to be happy.

“If I am happy and positive, it’s only going to be a positive influence on the world.”