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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Help To Keep Kids Safe Allowed Mom To Bloom

By Tal Abbady
Staff Writer

December 29, 2003
Copyright ©2003 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved.

The red flush of Christmas lights fills her living room, and the voices of her two children rise to the arched ceilings of Anitssa Bermudez's new home.

Ten months ago, the family teetered on the edge of poverty in a shelter as Bermudez recovered from a marriage that left her penniless and bruised her self-confidence.

Today, she is a homeowner working toward a college degree and raising Alex, 8, and Selena, 4. But even in the shelter and nearing mental collapse, Bermudez, 28, refused to become a welfare mom.

She sought help from agencies including Family Central Inc., which subsidized her child-care costs so she could work, study and, for the first time, achieve independence.

The agency administers federal and state grants to assist low-income families with child-care costs and is part of the Florida Partnership for School Readiness. In Palm Beach County, 10,000 children benefit daily from subsidized child care through Family Central Inc.

Bermudez is giddy at the emergence of her independence. It's something that was buried through much of her difficult marriage to a man she says discouraged her interests outside of keeping house and who alienated her family.

"I was stuck," said Bermudez, who is from Puerto Rico but came here as a child.

She was married shortly after high school and put off working, studying or learning a vocation. "I couldn't go anywhere. I couldn't do anything," she said.

After nine years in the relationship, Bermudez left with her children, moving in temporarily with her mother. In October 2001, not wanting to further burden her mother financially, she moved into a shelter, where she and her children lived until February.

"I was getting depressed. I had anxiety attacks. I literally was going crazy," said Bermudez of the months she struggled to put her life back on course.

Adding to her problems was a bankruptcy the couple filed during their marriage to save their home from foreclosure. After a court ordered the couple to have the bankruptcy payments deducted from their paychecks, Bermudez bore the brunt of making the payments. For nearly two years, including her year-and-a-half at the shelter, she took home $300 a month after the bankruptcy deductions. It was barely enough to cover her children's basic expenses.

Things spiraled even further when Bermudez was in a car accident that totaled her car and resulted in surgery.

"I kept thinking to myself, `What's next? What else can possibly happen?'" she said.

When she was working as a secretary for Palm Beach Community College's Institute of Excellence in Early Care and Education, she learned about Family Central Inc. With the guidance of her boss and mentor, Roanne Moreno, Bermudez applied for assistance to Family Central Inc., enrolled in college courses and got a mortgage on a three-bedroom home in West Palm Beach through the state's program for low-income homebuyers.

"When she came to work for me in 2000, she was going through all this turmoil," said Moreno, head of Palm Beach Community College's child care services program.

"One of the most rewarding things has been to watch her grow and become a confident young woman."

Through Family Central Inc., Bermudez was able to place Alex in an after-school child are program. Selena is in Head Start but occasionally requires private child care, which Family Central Inc. subsidizes. The agency has saved the young mother $150 monthly and has allowed her to pursue her two-year associate's degree.

Bermudez hopes to earn an advanced degree in education and says her studies have been key to her fulfillment as an adult.

Most important, her children have been restored to a normal life.

Wearing "Thing One" and "Thing Two" T-shirts from the new Dr. Seuss movie, Alex and Selena dart through the living room and peer at a cage where Angel, the family hamster, sleeps. Bermudez smiles at them, still struck by the change in their lives.

"I could have just gone on welfare and collected food stamps just like everybody else. But the welfare thing is a vicious cycle, and then your kids learn to live that way," she said. "Family Central was a lifesaver, because I was paying all this money I didn't have on child care, and I know how important child care is."

"People need to know there's help out there for those who want to better themselves," she said.

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