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Structure Helps Mom Get Back On Her Feet

By Shannon O'Boye | Staff Writer

5 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

When the woman came to the Salvation Army, she had nothing -- no home, no money, no education, no prospects.

Janice Zayas was 36, and she'd never worked a day in her life. She dropped out of school when she got pregnant at 16. Five more children followed, as did 10 years of drug abuse.

"I was in New York," Zayas said. "Welfare pays for everything if you have a lot of kids, which is the wrong thing to do because I knew nothing" about getting a job.

"You have to do something because if they pay your rent and do everything for you, you're just going to lay back," she said.

Zayas decided to take hold of her life this year after losing her apartment and ending up in a homeless shelter with two of her daughters and her mother. She turned to the Salvation Army for help and job training.

Zayas was hurt by the effect homelessness had on her daughters. Her 12-year-old daughter, Jasmine, lost 10 pounds.

"She wasn't eating at all. She was depressed. She had lost her schoolmates," Zayas said. "She told them she was leaving that school to move into a mansion because she was embarrassed."

Her older daughter, 17-year-old Tiffany, hated the world. Like her mother, she dropped out of high school in 10th grade. When they moved into the Salvation Army's emergency shelter in February, the girl couldn't be bothered with anything.

"When she saw that her mother had started to make improvements in her life, that's when she started to change her attitude and become happier," Zayas' case manager, Grace Lee, said. "She was a different person. I saw the change."

Tiffany is back in school and showing an interest in computers, her mother said.

"It's a relief," Zayas said. "I'm trying to save enough to get her a computer so she can work on it."

Zayas graduated from the Salvation Army's career connections program, which taught her basic computer and interviewing skills and, even more important, gave her the confidence that she could be a productive, independent member of society.

In October she landed her first job as a hostess at Chili's Too, a restaurant at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Her mother, Sanny Retamar, 57, works there, too.

Six days a week Zayas gets up early, takes the bus to work and puts in eight hours. She earns $7.70 an hour. It's not much, but it's a start that in October enabled her and her family to move out of the Salvation Army shelter and into an agency-owned apartment building in Hollywood.

People who live in Salvation Army housing have to pay 30 percent of whatever they earn for program fees.

"A lot of homeless people need that kind of structure so they can live," Lee said. "This is not, go out and get designer jeans and don't pay the rent."

In addition to work, Zayas is trying to earn a high school diploma at McFatter Technical Center in Davie. She wants to get a good-paying job in a medical office's billing department one day.

The Salvation Army has strict rules, which were hard for Zayas to get used to, but she put her pride aside because she is working toward an important goal. She wants to regain full custody of her children and bring her three sons, who live with family in Puerto Rico, to South Florida to live with her.

She hasn't seen the boys since she left Puerto Rico in a drug-induced haze in 2002. The drugs had taken such control of her life that she doesn't even remember the plane ride to South Florida. When she got here, she was 90 pounds and near death. It took her months to recover.

These days, she talks to her boys -- ages 14, 13 and 3 -- on weekends when she has free long distance on her cell phone.

"They tell me they have a suitcase under their bed ready for me to pick them up," she said.

Zayas gives the people at the Salvation Army all the credit for helping her turn her life around and making a reunion with her family possible.

"From a 1 to 10, I'd give them a 10," Zayas said. "If it wasn't for them, I don't know where I'd be. They gave me a place. They fed us. And they helped us with everything. They provide you with clothing, everything from a brush to whatever you need."

Despite all the years Zayas lost and all the obstacles she still faces, Lee believes she can be successful.

"For someone who was on drugs, she's done remarkably well," Lee said. "You wouldn't believe it if you saw her, that she had a problem. She's been a great survivor."

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