MCRAE,Ark. (Arkansas Catholic) - When James Neff came out of his house and saw the large cardboard check for $50,000, the look on his face went from confusion to shock to joy in a matter of seconds.
Tears flowed down his cheeks as he embraced his wife Edwina and baby, Devon. Though no words were spoken, his face seemed to tell all. The look of joy gave way to gratitude followed by hope. It was not just money; it was a dream made possible.
What Neff had realized in those seconds was that his family had been chosen to receive the Step Up to Hope Award from the Hurricane Recovery Office of Catholic Charities of Arkansas. Hurricane recovery director, Sister Joan Pytlik, DC, led the surprise presentation at the family’s home in McRae (White County). She held up the oversized check while other staff members sprang out from the side of the house carrying balloons and a plaque. A meeting was arranged under the guise of taking a family photo for the application process. The Neff family had no idea the decision had been made.
“I just didn’t build my hopes up too high because I’d never gotten anything, so I was in total shock,” Edwina Neff said in an interview with Arkansas Catholic after the presentation.
James Neff never had a real home growing up and providing that as well as financial stability for his sons is his dream. For him this money means, “I’ll be able to keep a roof over my kids’ heads.”
This grant was made possible by a local Catholic couple, who wished to remain anonymous. They donated the money to the Hurricane Recovery Office specifically for a struggling hurricane evacuee family planning to stay in Arkansas, Sister Joan said.
The couple donated $25,000 in April 2006 with the promise to give another $25,000 at the end of 2006. From there, hurricane recovery staff developed the Step Up to Hope Award.
The 26 parish-based hurricane recovery teams in the Diocese of Little Rock along with the five regional case managers who supervise the teams were asked to nominate families for the award. According to the grant’s guidelines, its purpose was “to help those who have no other hope of making this step-up.”
Though many families were nominated, the staff felt the grant should go to those who could be affected for generations to come. Therefore, they focused on couples suffering from lifelong poverty with small children.
After an extensive application process - including interviews, criminal background checks, tax returns, credit reports, educational transcripts and references - and talking with the donor family, the decision was made to award the money to the Neff family.
Brigid Ryan, northeast Arkansas regional case manager, said she supported the Neffs’ nomination by Deacon Bob and Marie Morris, who lead the hurricane recovery team at St. James Church in Searcy, Ark.
Ryan and the Morrises have worked with the family for nearly a year. Her region includes McRae, a small community between Beebe and Searcy.
The money and assistance provided through this grant came at a crucial time for the Neffs, she said.
“This family would fail without this intervention. Maybe not right away,” Ryan said, but “they would probably lose their home, and have to go back to an apartment or housing situation, and then we’re talking more services and staying on state aid.”
The hope is that this money will help them hold on to their home and be able to plan for their future, she said.
“These three little boys don’t have to wake up wondering, ‘Am I going to have a place to live tomorrow?’ ‘Are we going to stay in the park tonight?’” she said. “If kids feel safe and that they have a place to live, they can focus on education and their future instead of worrying about survival skills.”
Their parents were not that fortunate growing up in Louisiana. When James Neff was 10 his family lived in a two-person tent for six months after both his parents lost their jobs. In that tent were five people and a dog. This was followed by living in the back of the family’s pick-up truck for nearly two months. In the years that followed the family moved around a lot.
“We were always kicked out of a house because we couldn’t pay the rent,” he said.
“I don’t want to ever have to go through that ever again because of all the things that I’ve lost because of it,” he said. “I didn’t have much of a childhood because I had to grow up too fast. And now that this has happened, my kids will be able to see, and be able to actually say, ‘I have a home.’”
At 16 Neff left his family and entered Cass Job Corps Center in Ozark, Ark., where he earned a culinary arts certificate.
“I’ve been on my own since then,” he said.
He returned to Louisiana and worked at a series of restaurants, one of which he managed for five years in his hometown of Chalmette,La., a suburb of New Orleans. Through it all, he struggled to get ahead. He overcame a drug addiction and went to jail for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I spent six months in jail for being at my friend’s house. The cops had come in to bust his father and there were eight of us in the house and they took all eight of us to jail,” he said.
Edwina Neff was abused by her stepfather from the age of 2. The turning point came after her family was in a serious car accident because of her stepfather’s drinking. Her mother awoke from a coma nearly three months later with brain damage and paralysis and eventually walked again after months of physical therapy. Edwina was 13. Her younger sister had run away, so Edwina and her mother moved into a trailer.
At 18, a troubled Edwina followed a friend to Georgia but eventually returned to New Orleans where she moved back and forth between her mom’s trailer and her dad’s house.
Edwina and James Neff, now both 27, married in July 2004. She has a son, Blake, 5, and together they have two sons, “Little James,” 2, and Devon, 10 months.
The family was living in a Chalmette apartment when James’s aunt invited them to evacuate to Florida just before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. A couple of weeks later the family returned to Louisiana, and learned they had lost nearly everything to water damage. They saved one wedding photo, which they display in their kitchen in McRae.
Realizing there was nothing to return to, the Neffs went back to Florida and, in time, reached Edwina’s mom by cell phone, who had evacuated with relatives to Searcy and was staying at Camp Wildwood, which was being used as an emergency shelter for hurricane evacuees.
James and Edwina decided to go to Searcy in October 2005 and stayed at Camp Wildwood for three weeks until they were able to get an apartment through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s rental assistance. James Neff got a job as a cook at Doc’s Grill in Searcy, where he works today.
Rather than stay in a FEMA subsidized apartment, the Neffs bought their home in McRae in the fall of 2006. They knew the financial demands would be overwhelming, but they wanted a home with a yard for their children. They found out about St. James’ hurricane recovery team and turned to them for help with a $500 electric bill.
“There was no way that I was able to pay this so we finally decided to call the deacon, and ever since then, whenever I really do need the help, I’ve asked him to help,” James Neff said.
Now that they have received the Catholic Charities grant, the Neffs want to pay down and possibly refinance their mortgage to reduce monthly payments, thereby making it affordable within their current budget. They also want to make some much-needed repairs to their home. These include renovating the bathroom, replacing leaky windows and the heating and air conditioning system, and filling in wall holes to make the house energy efficient.
“The shower head itself is on a hose and the hose keeps falling off the pipe,” James Neff said. “We’ve got a sheet stuffed into a window because it’s got a big opening in it.”
Other dreams include going to college and opening “Neff’s Bistro,” a Cajun restaurant.
“I’ve always loved cooking,” he said. “It thrills me to give somebody a plate of food and say, ‘Look how beautiful this food is, I prepared it for you, bon appétit.’”
Edwina Neff said she wants to study childhood psychology so she can help children who have been abused like she was. She hopes to start taking classes part time at Arkansas State University at Beebe. Since her husband’s work schedule changes regularly, it may be difficult to set a class schedule. The budget doesn’t allow for day care and they no longer have any family nearby to watch the kids.
Jamie Deere, hurricane recovery case management coordinator, said the Neffs face many challenges, including low wages and lack of resources and family support.
However, despite the odds, she said, they have proven their commitment to move forward by buying a home and taking steps toward an education
“They did the best they could with a little bit of resources and the knowledge they have and they continue to fight,” Ryan said. “We’re talking two people with absolutely no education and very few skills for what’s needed in our workforce, and yet they’re making it.”
Edwina Neff recently passed the General Educational Development test and graduated.
“Not only did she pass the GED, she passed it on her first try and she passed it studying by herself,” Ryan said. “I’m in awe of her ability to do that.”
Ryan was scheduled to meet with the Neffs to begin developing a financial plan for the grant.
If he could talk to the couple that donated the money, James Neff said he would tell them, “They are a God-send. They deserve everything that God could ever give them.”
Sister Joan said she thinks the donors are remarkable and rare.
“This example will help others realize they too can help a family get out of poverty and have hope,” she said.
Catholic Charities director Sister Mary Lou Stubbs, DC, said, “One of the primary goals of Catholic Charities is to help build resiliency and sustainability - sometimes this is best done one family at a time.”
Republished with permission by Catholic Online from the Arkansas Catholic (www.arkansas-catholic.org), official publication of the Diocese of Little Rock (Ark.).