‘I Can Take Charge of My Life’
Orlando Sentinel (Florida)
December 18, 2008 Thursday
Daphne Sashin , Sentinel Staff Writer
SECTION: LOCAL NEWS; FLORIDA; FAMILY FUND, Holiday Campaign; Pg. B1
When she feels discouraged, Linda Defrand sits at her kitchen table and writes the story of her life on a stack of loose-leaf paper.
The plot has not gone the way she dreamed it would.
By 27, she was the single mother of six children by five different fathers, a high-school dropout and just about penniless. The sound of gunshots was a regular occurrence in her Fort Lauderdale neighborhood. At one point, she found her little boy hiding in an apartment closet, praying in fear.
She knew her children deserved more than she was giving them. There had to be something better out there for her, too.
Defrand’s mother always told her, “If things don’t work out in one place, move to another.” So in December 2006, Defrand packed four of the kids into her Chevy Impala — the two others had been sent to live with their father and grandparents — begged strangers for gas money and steered the car north.
“I had kids after kids after kids, and everything I started, I didn’t finish,” said Defrand, now 29. “When I moved to Orlando, I said, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”
Life wasn’t any easier in Orlando. Many nights, when she couldn’t afford a motel room, Defrand and the children, then ages 4, 7, 10 and 11, slept in the car and washed up in a church bathroom or at the supermarket. After a while, she found a promising, full-time customer-service position at a Christian bookstore in Winter Park and a three-bedroom apartment on North Orange Blossom Trail.
Eight months later, sluggish sales forced the bookstore to shut down.
In August, while packing up her things, Defrand found a flier about the Jewish Family Services family-stabilization program that she had tucked away months before. The program, which received $75,000 this year from the Orlando Sentinel Family Fund Holiday Campaign, aims to prevent homelessness through six months of one-on-one counseling; training in budgeting and managing money; referrals to job-placement agencies; and a small amount of emergency, short-term financial help. The program helped Defrand pay her light bills and rent.
“We’re not going to fix everything, but it’s an opportunity for them to start making those changes that they need to make to change their lives,” said program coordinator and caseworker Adrienne Gordon Cooperman. “It’s a huge commitment for them.”
Defrand said Cooperman was one of the few people who believed in her and could provide more than one-time assistance.
“I said, ‘I know I’m smart. I don’t have much education, but I’m not scared to learn,’ ” Defrand said. “I felt like she was interested in me. She always encouraged me.”
The program paid for Defrand to take the final test required for her high-school diploma. Her children were even more excited than she was three weeks ago when she opened the mailbox and found a FedEx envelope with her diploma tucked in a blue folder.
“My daughter was like, ‘I want to be just like you and get my diploma,’ ” Defrand said. “I told them, ‘You don’t want to be like me, but you’re going to finish school, and you’re going to be better than me.’ ”
Defrand plans to pursue her dream of becoming a police officer by entering the criminal-justice program at Valencia Community College in January.
In the meantime, she is looking for customer-service jobs near her home. She struggles to pay the bills with the few hours a week she works at a Michaels craft store, getting there with a car she borrows from a friend.
She tries not to burden her children with her troubles, pouring them out instead on the loose-leaf paper. Eventually, she hopes she can afford to publish her story and inspire some other single mother to change her life.
“I can take charge of my life, stop pointing the finger at everybody,” she says. “Change comes only if you want it.”