Gwendolyn still remembers the moment she signed the papers and received the shiny gold keys. The 36-year-old mother of two beamed, “I kept thinking wow this is it, this is really ours!” It was a cold rainy evening in November of 2015 when Gwendolyn and her daughters first entered their new home in the village of Palmyra. The girls immediately ran upstairs to claim their rooms, while Gwendolyn stood silently in the empty living room soaking in the white walls of her new surroundings. “I took a moment, I walked around and I just listened to my girls’ excitement and footsteps upstairs,” she said.
Like the walls in the room, Gwendolyn’s new life was a blank canvas full of possibilities. Thanks to United Way, her dream of home ownership had finally become a reality.
The road to homeownership wasn’t an easy journey for Gwendolyn, yet it’s an all-too-familiar scenario for many families in United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County’s four-county region.
Gwendolyn’s household, like 42% of family households in the state of Wisconsin, falls within the ALICE Threshold. ALICE is an acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. ALICE represents the households with income above the Federal Poverty Level but below the basic cost of living.
ALICE households strive for financial stability but face complex barriers. These families and individuals have jobs, but many do not qualify for social services or support. ALICE jobs are critical to the success of our communities – child care workers, laborers and movers, home health aides, heavy truck drivers, store clerks, repair workers and office assistants – yet, they aren’t sure if they’ll be able to put dinner on the table each night.
How did she get there? Let’s go back to 2013, when Gwendolyn was living in Waukesha and working full-time but still struggling financially. Supporting her two young girls as a single mom was difficult, but Gwen remained positive.
“I always maintained a job,” said Gwendolyn. “I may not have been making a lot but I was always employed.” While ALICE families are working hard, they are forced to make tough financial decisions, and are only one unexpected bill away from financial crisis.
Gwendolyn was unable to afford life’s basic necessities. Some months, she would have to decide between paying her utility bill in full and making sure food was on the table.
“No matter how little I had, I would never let my kids go hungry,” Gwendolyn said.
For months, Gwendolyn paid what she could towards credit cards, the utility company and her landlord. She also relied heavily on food pantries to help stretch her money.
After many stressful months, Gwendolyn finally mustered the strength to take the next step and ask for help.
She remembers fondly the day she walked into Waukesha’ La Casa De Esperanza nonprofit agency and enrolled in the United Way-funded Financial Stability program. It was a life-changing moment.
“I remember my girls came with me that day,” said Gwendolyn. “I sat down with my financial stability coach Gina and started to cry. Inside I was thinking ‘Why did I wait so long to get help?'" During the program, Gwendolyn learned how to create an action plan for her financial goals, repair her credit and create a budget.
“If it wasn’t for this program showing me the way, I don’t know where I would be,” said Gwendolyn.
“Gwendolyn’s family is just one of 670,922 ALICE households in Wisconsin who are living just above the poverty line,” said Krystina Kohler, Income Portfolio Coordinator at United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County. “United Way’s Community Fund supports strategic programs to provide hardworking families like Gwendolyn’s with education, income, and health resources so that they can improve the quality of their lives and begin to thrive.”
Last year, 61% of participants in La Casa De Esperanza’s Financial Stability program saved for short and long term needs and 88% of participants enhanced their budgeting skills.
Today, Gwendolyn is proud of the big steps she took to reach financial freedom. Her credit score improved and she works full-time at an insurance company Waukesha.
She also has started taking steps towards teaching her two young daughters about how to manage their own money.
“Both my girls earn a weekly allowance, and my 14-year-old even has her own savings account set up,” Gwendolyn said.
Gwendolyn says the best part of having reached some of her long-awaited financial goals is, “I can do more for my kids than ever before,” Gwendolyn said. “And that puts a smile on my face.”
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