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Seattle family in medical and financial crisis gets helping hand from Catholic outreach

By Christine Dubois - © 2008 Christine Dubois
January 17th, 2008
The Catholic Northwest Progress (

SEATTLE, Wash. (Catholic Northwest Progress) - Sara Macri and her fiancé Conrado Mendoza sit together in the Burien apartment they moved into last month, watching their young daughters sleep. It’s a rare moment of peace in the family’s continuing struggle to survive.

In the morning they’ll face the reality that they could lose the apartment — and the children — if they can’t come up with this month’s rent. Macri will go through the phone book, calling every church and social service agency she can find.

“If it’s your first time asking [for help], or if it’s your hundredth, it’s not any easier,” says Macri, mother of 2-year-old Adrianna and baby Isabel, who was born last fall with a heart defect. “I feel I should have my own money and be able to take care of my kids.”

Like most low-income families, their story is complicated: a combination of bad luck, medical crises and the escalating cost of living in King County.

A heart defect

Mendoza has a new job as a shuttle driver for a local motel, but he doesn’t make enough to cover their living expenses. Macri would like to go back to work — she’s staffed the front desk at motels, worked in fast food restaurants and served as a receptionist and Spanish translator at H & R Block — but she can’t find a childcare center that will take an infant with medical problems.

Even if she could, she’d need time off work for the baby’s medical appointments and upcoming surgery, something her employers haven’t looked kindly on.

Macri, who says she’s “23 going on 50,” has already faced more than her share of obstacles. Molested by a relative when she was young, she later dropped out of high school, battled a crack cocaine addiction and spent time in jail. She’s been off drugs for nine years and hasn’t had a drink in four.

Cleaning up her act has been hard, she says, but “it’s made me stronger as a person. Counseling helped me understand that some of it was my fault, but some of it wasn’t.”

A week after Isabel was born last September, doctors discovered the baby had a heart defect and needed immediate surgery. On top of that, Macri learned that they would have to move out of their subsidized low-income housing unit; according to federal housing regulations, the one-bedroom apartment was too small for the growing family.

A two-bedroom apartment (also low-income housing) opened up in the same building, but the couple didn’t have the money for the damage deposit and first month’s rent.

After making dozens of other calls, Macri called Catholic Community Services. “I do not know where to turn,” she told them.

‘A life changing thing’

Staff at the south King County family center listened compassionately to her story and offered her $400 for the deposit. Combined with a loan from her grandparents and help from a nearby church, it was enough for the family to move in Dec. 1, 2007.

“If we hadn’t received that help from CCS, we wouldn’t be here,” says Macri. “The girls would probably be in foster care, and we’d be living in the car. It sounds corny, but it was a life-changing thing.”

Changing lives is all in a day’s work at the 12 CCS family centers serving western Washington. The centers help thousands of families in crisis, offering both practical assistance and emotional support. In King County alone, 2,500 families a year receive assistance, ranging from food, warm coats and bus passes to gift cards, motel vouchers and legal advice. Rental assistance is limited to once per family per year.

Macri and Mendoza know their challenges aren’t over. Doctors say the baby will need more heart surgery this month. Mendoza is behind on his truck payments — they needed the money for diapers and formula — and worries that his truck will be repossessed. The couple is scrambling to find the money for rent so they don’t end up on the street.

Just when they didn’t need any more bad luck, Macri’s car broke down late last month. Isabel inhaled the smoke and ended up in the hospital for five days. Macri stayed by her side, barely sleeping. She didn’t dare go home, fearing the worst. “I was afraid I’d get that phone call at 2 a.m. and go back . . . to nothing.”

Their goals at this point are modest: to find the money to cover rent, gas, and diapers for a couple of months so they can focus on their baby’s health.

The stress of getting through each day feels overwhelming, but, like any mother, Macri keeps on for the sake of her children.

“If not for the kids, we would have given up a long time ago,” she says. “You look in their eyes, and that’s what makes it all worth it.”

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