'A girl named Maria' finds sanctuary in Lindsay

By C.J. Barbre

A mother at 15, Maria got into a second relationship and bore two more children.

It turned out to be so abusive that she fled her husband and his family in Guadalajara and came north. What was a 19-year-old mother of three, who could neither read nor write and didn't speak any English do, but get involved in another relationship. She married again and had her fourth child. It was 1994. The next year she moved to Lindsay. People prone toward abusive relationships tend to repeat the pattern until they get help. She would have her fifth child, and the father of that child would end up in prison for abuse. That may have been her first help, in that the law has made jail mandatory for abuse cases.

But now it was down to the nitty gritty of survival, and the only marketable skills Maria possessed that would allow her to simultaneously care for her youngest child was housekeeping and babysitting, not hardly a living wage for a family of six. She soon found out about the Lindsay Strathmore Coordinating Council. Most of the families they help are referrals from other agencies or organizations.

Director Janie Elson said Healthy Start is on the front lines for referrals of people in need, typically from the school district, but also from probation, the police department and "lots of sources." She said the persons referred, come to the offices of Healthy Start and are assigned a case manager. Healthy Start has four full-time and two part-time case managers on staff. Elson said the case managers follow up with a home visit. "If it becomes apparent that they need food, we will suggest that they go to the Coordinating Council and see that they get some food and clothes. In the past they've kept some clothes available for folks that need something right now - other than the thrift store." Elson said it is helpful to the Coordinating Council to have had an initial screening and validation by another agency that a family needs immediate help.

"This is my favorite store, the way I dress my children," Maria said seated in the office of LSCC interim director Sallie McDonald. McDonald served as translator. Maria, who wears her hair in the long single braid of the traditional Mexican peasant woman, said she hasn't had time to learn English in a class, "Because I am constantly working. I'm very active in my church and with my family." In fact she had one of her young charges with her in a stroller for this interview.

Maria also receives rental assistance through HEAP (Housing Emergency Assistance Program) which reaches people at the Coordinating Council on Mondays through the Porterville C-SET office. The family lives in a tiny but tidy bungalow behind a duplex on Gale Hill Avenue.

And, of course, with five children there is always going to be something, hopefully not a crisis. A big something was her 16-year old, the only daughter, getting in a serious traffic accident last year. The daughter has still not returned to school, but is doing home schooling. Maria said her church, the Apostolic Assembly, assisted in this crisis and the First Baptist Church gave them a Christmas box and gifts for the children.

Maria has received other help from Healthy Start including shoe vouchers and transportation.

"By the time shoes get to thrift shops they are worn out," Elson said. She said about a year ago the Antique Truck Club gave Healthy Start some money and they used it to buy shoe vouchers at $10 per voucher. She said they partnered with Payless and had a limit of x amount of vouchers per family. They tried to get the vouchers out to as many families as possible. "Logistically it was the easy way to do it. We don't have to know the kids' shoe size. We had some pretty dramatic stories of kids with cardboard soles in their shoes, not all, but there were some."

Elson said, "Transportation is a huge issue for these families, and the fact that we can send them someplace they can walk [to the Coordinating Council] is great. If the Council were to go away it would be a serious gap, and folks need to put their energy into addressing this."

Elson added that, "Transportation is problematic because we could end up doing it all day every day and pretty soon you're a taxi driver." But she said if someone is under the province of one of their case workers and is truly not able to get someplace important, they will provide transportation. "But I hate to give the impression that you can call and get a ride," she reiterated. "One of the big ones is Valley Children's Hospital, getting people there. Another big one is getting adolescents to court and you always get in trouble if you don't show up." It is in fact difficult to fathom how arduous would be survival in this area without some form of personal transportation, given the scarcity of public transportation.

Healthy Start also offers a variety of classes. Maria, now 33, said she had taken parenting classes on how to take care of children without corporal punishment, but rather by talking to them, and having them understand the rules. She said part of it was directed at dealing with adolescents, in the 12-15-year-old range, tough for a single mom of four boys with no father figure to set an example. Her daughter wants to become a preschool teacher, for which mom has been an example of sorts.

Her 15-year-old son seems to be doing pretty well. Maria was also cleaning a mini market on Honolulu Street part time, but her son has taken over and is now able to buy the clothes he needs for school such as gym clothes. She said he also buys his school lunches, because they do not get free lunches. She didn't say why or why not. She said the money left over he puts in the bank, into his savings account.

Margie Mininger, who heads up food service for the Lindsay Unified School District, said breakfast is on the Free, Reduced, and Paid Program but they want everyone to have a good breakfast, so simply give it to all students for free. She said families fill out a form to be on the lunch program. If they are in the county food stamp program, they will automatically be eligible. If not, if they are not citizens and don't have social security cards, Mininger said eligibility is based on income and family size. She said sometimes they give an application for the kids to bing back to school and "they never get here." She said the full price for lunch is $1.25, a reduced lunch is 40 cents and free is free. Students are allowed two charges and then receive a note to take home to the parent(s) to catch up on the bill. Mininger said after the two charges, the kids still get lunch, but the main dish is replaced with a peanut butter sandwich and milk. "We call it a nutritious snack and don't charge for that."

She said there is no way to tell the haves from the have-nots because the children all go through the line and all just give their names. The money is sorted out at a different time and place. Besides, she said, "It's against the law to talk to or in front of the other kids about their status." It sounds like Maria's children should certainly be eligible. Mininger said she would check out the situation.

Asked what she sees for the future, Maria says she sees nothing in her own future, but she is doing the best she can for her children and hopes they will be able to continue their educations beyond high school. The oldest wants to be in the FBI, but doesn't have a social security card.

Maria gave permission to use her full name and allowed for a photo to be taken of her with her children, but in the final analysis it seemed better to let them remain anonymous. Her only motivation was to help the Coordinating Council, by sharing how much they have helped her family.

"It would be very bad if the Coordinating Council had to close because people who don't have enough money for food and clothing can come here. My work is not always stable. There are days they call me for work and days they don't."

In helping support her church, Maria, is decorating lovely blue candles for which the church gave her the money. In turn the church sells them to parishioners as a fund-raiser. Giving of what she has. Can't you hear that bell ringing."

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