- By Debra Tomaselli, Florida Catholic correspondent

Saturday, January 17, might have seemed like any ordinary Saturday. But inside a conference room at Catholic Charities of Central Florida, it was anything but mundane.

Here, a celebration was taking place for the progress made by families in our community to become financially independent. The event was hosted by Catholic Charities of Central Florida’s Family Stability Initiative Program.

A numerical figure was written on the whiteboard at the front of the room: $24,821. Adriana Santos, MSW, Case Manager of Family Stability Initiative (FSI), was quick to explain.

“That’s the collective amount that our families saved in 2014,” she said. 

That’s praiseworthy for a group whose members arrived on the brink of homelessness.

Most clients are single mothers. 

“They come here in crisis,” Santos said. “They may be a day away from eviction, or have been without electricity for days.”

Catholic Charities helps alleviate the immediate financial crises, perhaps paying electric bills or past-due rents. The FSI program, which serves about 50 families annually, offers 6 months of individualized weekly counseling. The program helps them to set goals, make budgets, stick to the budget, and create a savings account. Additionally, FSI teaches organizational, goal setting and time management skills.

“In the goal setting session, we set realistic visions for that they want,” says Santos. “We ask questions: ‘What’s your goal? What’s your passion? What are your gifts?’”

Many of the women have never had that kind of support.

“It’s so crucial to be there for them,” said Santos.  “Sometimes we just sit and listen.” 

“Our role is relationship-driven because everyone’s situation is different,” said Diazina Mobley, MSW, LCSW, who also counsels the women. “We get to know the families and all that is going on. We problem-solve and get them to start saving to reach their goal.”

When Marcy sought help, she was facing eviction. With no savings and no family support, she had nowhere to turn. “If I ran out of food, I’d have to take money from my bills,” Marcy said, “and that always put me behind.”

Santos connected with Marcy. “Ms. Adriana is such a woman of God,” Marcy said. “I never had anyone I could talk to. Ms. Adriana never rushes me. We’ve had many teary moments.”

Marcy wants to own a home. “When I didn’t follow (the budget), Ms. Adriana asked, ’Was this purchase necessary?’” Marcy said. “ I never felt judged. She’d encourage me to stay on track for the following week.”

Another member of the group, Charlene, praised the program.

With a newborn and three school-age children, Charlene suddenly found herself alone with no financial support.

“There were moments I thought I’d have a nervous breakdown,” Charlene said.  “But God helped me through.” 

Charlene learned about FSI from Barbara Barry, a guidance counselor at Grand Avenue School in Orlando, where Catholic Charities has a presence.

“The program taught me how to manage my money better,” Charlene said.  She began budgeting and saving. “They taught me how to make a meal plan so you know what you are buying for the week, instead of going to the store several times.  Now I’m a coupon fanatic.”

As part of the celebration, Barry, a parishioner at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Winter Park, gave a motivational talk.  Reading from the Gospel of Mark, she encouraged the women to focus on inspiration rather than desperation, to eat healthy and discipline lovingly. 

In closing, Barry said, “Each of you has some potential. Every step that we take needs to make a positive difference. My final words to you are - Think about how wonderful you are.”

During the awards ceremony, there were whoops and hollers, hugs and tears, as Santos recognized a winner for each of the following categories – Most Saved, Most Debt Paid, and Most Improved- not just financially. 

Everyone in the room was a winner, though.

One completed her college degree in criminology. Another shared her story, admitting it was the first time she’d ever addressed an assembly.  Another said she felt inspired to succeed.

Santos smiled. “I love each and every one of them,” she said. “They come in completely hopeless. This gives them hope.”

“I would recommend this to as many people as possible,” Marcy added. “You have to just ask for help. You don’t know who God is going to place in your life. All you have to do is ask for help.”

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