Home opens for struggling women

South Kitsap resident Donna Smith remembers all too well the problems her daughter was dealing with 10 years ago.

Like many young women her age, she seemed to have more obstacles than opportunities — not only struggling with substance abuse and unhealthy relationships but facing a future with few skills and even fewer job prospects.

“She really could have used a place like this,” Smith said, referring to the low-cost shelter she recently started in Southworth that offers women a roof over their heads and a chance to get back on their feet.

Open since January, the shelter has two residents, both single mothers who might otherwise be homeless. But Smith said providing needy women a place to live is only the first step — the real help she intends to offer is much more permanent.

“This is not a quick Band-Aid, but a complete program designed to provide first immediate relief, followed by help gaining the tools to survive,” she said, explaining that while she sets no limit on how long the women can stay, she expects that as soon as they move in, they should be planning on moving out.

“They can stay here as long as they are moving forward,” she said, explaining that the ideal resident is not only going through difficulties, but is also ambitious and has a clear career objective, such as going to college or gaining new skills.

The first resident, Heidi Skavland, 28, said living at the shelter with her six-year-old daughter, Taylor, has drastically reduced her rent — Smith asks for a minimum of $200 a month — and she hopes those savings will help her go back to school.

Also at the house is Kara Farias, 20, the mother of 5-month-old Elizabeth.

Farias said she was living with her baby’s father, but recently had to move out.

She said she hopes her new living situation will help her eventually go to college and get a nursing degree.

“I have always wanted to work with children,” she said, explaining that as the oldest of five children whose parents were often unable to care for them, she is already a very experienced caretaker.

Smith said the help Skavland and Farias can offer each other while living together is invaluable, explaining that often the smallest mishaps can lead to devastation for a woman with no support system.

Maybe her car breaks down and she can’t repair it, leaving her without a way to get to work, she said. Maybe her child needs to go to a doctor’s appointment and she cannot get time off work to take her. Or maybe she simply needs a night off and cannot afford a babysitter.

“It’s a lot easier attaining your goals if you’re doing it with a group,” Smith said. “There’s a lot more resources available, and it’s just easier to have a network behind you.”

Smith said she could not have started the shelter herself without the help of the home’s owners, Will and Diane Lemon. She said she called ads for rentals for weeks, but once the owners found out how many people would be living in the home — her and three other families — they balked.

“They pretty much laughed at me,” she said, explaining that when the Lemons agreed to rent to her, she could hardly believe it. And then when she saw the place, she was overjoyed.

“It is gorgeous — I mean, it is obscenely nice,” she said, explaining that the four-bedroom home not only has plenty of space inside and out, it has sweeping views of Puget Sound, Blake Island and Seattle’s skyline in the distance.

Smith said she is glad to be able to offer the women and their children such comfortable surroundings, but also hoped the amenities would serve another purpose as well.

“I hope that this time in a nice place will give the women, and their children, something to aspire to,” she said. “That if they know what it is like to actually enjoy things like this, they will strive to attain them for themselves.”

Of course, the home is not quite perfect yet, as Smith said they desperately need a washer and dryer, and there’s the small matter of not having any furniture yet.

The table and chairs they do have in the kitchen, she said, were graciously loaned to them by the Lemons, who live next door.

And at the same time that she is looking for appliances and furnishings, Smith is still searching for more people, too, since she has a bedroom available for a third resident and hopes to form a board of directors, as well.

“What I really need right now is a treasurer,” she said, explaining that for her shelter — a state registered non-profit she named New Direction Family Services — to really get off the ground, she needs someone to help manage the finances.

On Thursday, however, she was focused on much more immediate plans — sorting out clothing for the shelter’s first Saturday gathering, what she called a way for the women in the community to “network and share resources.”

Planned for the last Saturday of each month, Smith said the meetings will offer women of all backgrounds a chance to swap clothes, learn about job opportunities, or simply share stories.

“It is really important for women to be networking with other women,” Smith said.

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