With her second daughter born prematurely and her husband in jail, Chrissy Johnson knew she needed to take charge of her life.
Her $16,000 salary as an airport security officer was not covering the needs of her growing family, and she sometimes needed food assistance or help paying bills from family members.
Last August, her husband, Anthony, was arrested for burglarizing a car. Her daughter, Annalise, was born in October — two months early — after doctors couldn’t get Chrissy’s high blood pressure under control. At the same time, her eldest daughter, Antoni, was starting kindergarten.
“I was an emotional basket case, and he wasn’t there for it,” Johnson said.
A lifeline — the Family Stabilization Program offered by Jewish Family Services — “was right on time,” she said.
The Family Stabilization Program is funded, in part, by the Orlando Sentinel Family Fund Holiday Campaign, as well as other foundations, corporations and government sources. The program does not require recipients to be Jewish, and most are not.
Case manager Adrienne Cooperman became Johnson’s cheerleader, confidante and sounding board. When Johnson told Cooperman that she wanted to go back to college to finish her bachelor’s degree at UCF, it became a priority.
“You’re not going to get ahead without an education,” Cooperman said. “We discuss it a lot.”
The Family Stabilization Program provides people with a way to overhaul their lives.
“We teach people how to do things,” Cooperman said.
The six-month program, which includes budgeting sessions, counseling, case management and evening seminars, aims to increase household income in the long term.
It works with every enrolled family on money management, housing, family function and parenting, emotional and mental coping skills, employability, and job security.
Typically, about 65 to 70 families take part in the program annually, which requires the participation of an employed or recently employed adult. The program involves 12 one- to two-hour workshops, counseling sessions and budgeting sessions over a half-year.
Jewish Family Services follows up with families for an additional six months.
Typically, about three-quarters of the participants make life changes, Cooperman said. Forty-five percent improve their income, and 30 percent go back to school.
Johnson said the personalized financial planning sessions helped her learn to budget for long-term needs, such as car repairs, and not just short-term priorities like bills. A résumé workshop helped her market her strengths in more forceful language. Housing assistance covered her rent and light bills as she returned to work after maternity leave. And counseling sessions have helped Chrissy and Antoni deal with Anthony’s absence.
But for Chrissy, the most important thing she could do to change her life was go back to school. With Cooperman’s encouragement and gentle nagging, she is working full time to complete her English degree at UCF, where she took classes from 1996-2001 without finishing.
She has had to take out loans to do it, but is hopeful that a job as a technical writer, paying at least $40,000 a year to start, could change everything for her daughters.
“It’ll make all the difference in the world,” she said. “You can’t find a job that will sustain a family of three or four without having a degree and give them a nice lifestyle.”
She expects to graduate in December 2013.
Johnson said it’s also important to set an example for Antoni, 6, and Annalise, now 13 months.
“I want them to see that I’m doing it, and they can do it, too,” Johnson said.