When asked to describe her role at Lebanon County Christian Ministries, Amanda Zearfoss used the phrase “emotional rollercoaster.”
As a support services coordinator at FRESH Start Emergency Shelter & Resource Center, Amanda has a vital role when it comes to helping families and individuals experiencing homelessness get back on their feet.
Many guests who enter FRESH Start have jobs, but they live paycheck to paycheck. They can pay bills, but if just one thing goes wrong, such as a vehicle breaking down, it starts a slippery financial slope that can lead to evictions, to not being able to pay other bills, to losing child care or transportation and other crucial foundations needed to maintain sustainability.
5 things you should know about homelessness in Lebanon County
Many times, guests also have emotional and relationship struggles in addition to the economic ones, which can lead to difficulty in breaking out of the cycle of poverty.
Amanda’s ability to identify with guests was not developed in the classroom – it was formed by life experience.
Amanda knows the difficulty to break free from the grips of homelessness and poverty because she was once in their shoes. As it happens, Amanda began her career at FRESH Start homeless.
Her story begins in childhood. She moved around a lot due to her father being in the military. When she was around 9 years old, her parents got divorced and her mother worked two jobs to support her two children.
“We hit rock bottom, we lived in low-income housing, she applied for food stamps for the first time in her life,” she said. “Everything kind of decreased and it went downhill so to speak, so we were living in poverty.”
When she was 15, she moved in with her father and returned to Lebanon when she was 18.
“During that time, I learned the street life,” she said. “I learned to hustle.”
When she gave birth to her daughter in 2008, she wanted to change her lifestyle.
“I didn’t want to be in the streets. I didn’t want to make the fast money, I wanted to be somebody my daughter could look up to,” she said. “So, one day she could say, ‘mom, you know what, you fell a few times, you went down the wrong path, but you made a right turn.’”
A few years later she had her second child, but in less than a year, Amanda says she and the children’s father split up.
“During that time, I was homeless,” she said. “I was a stay-at-home mom for so many years, I had nothing to fall back on. I had no work ethic, no nothing. I had to move back with my dad,” she said.
Amanda became pregnant again, but tragically lost her child through stillbirth.
“After the burial, I fought depression really bad. I fought it to the point where there were days I didn’t want to wake up, but my children kept me going,” she said.
She returned to Lebanon and spent close to a year couch surfing - that is, moving from one temporary housing arrangement to another – among four households. She tried to provide some stability for her children when they came to visit by only having the children stay with her one of the households so they could have some stability.
A friend eventually offered to let her stay at their home where she ended up living for three years. During this time, Amanda acquired her GED, went to college and earned her degree. When she became pregnant with her fourth child, she was put on bed rest.
“I could not work, I could not do anything,’ she said. “It was devastating. I had (state) cash assistance, and it helps you to a point, but it’s nothing sustainable. You can’t live off of it. I would say for my family of five I was getting $408 a month.”
It was at this time when she was receiving state cash assistance that she went through a program through Community Action Partnership that helps mothers entering the workforce. She saw two job openings at Lebanon County Christian Ministries. Amanda had heard about LCCM before, and her first experience with the organization was utilizing its programs to receive diapers and clothing.
Amanda decided to apply for one of the jobs but did not receive it. But, as Amanda puts it, a “very special someone” at LCCM saw her potential and advocated for her to be offered the other position. That special someone is Wenda DiNatale, LCCM’s client support manager.
When Amanda started at LCCM, she was still technically homeless since she was still living with a friend.
Through encouragement from Wenda, she accepted the job because she was reaching a turning point in her life, achieving personal goals, developing a support network and, most importantly, accepting Jesus Christ into her life. Now she was being given an opportunity in her walk with God to walk alongside of others who are struggling with homelessness.
“I learned that swallowing my pride and letting the Lord back into my life and guiding me in the proper direction – I got the help that I needed,” she said. “I wish someone would have walked alongside of me and given me that nudge to say ‘hey no, you’re not doing this right, you’re walking down the wrong path. You have to think of this and think of that.’”
But Amanda’s story took another tragic ironic twist when, a year into her position helping those struggling with homelessness, she became homeless again when her neighbor’s house caught fire and her home was condemned.
“I was completely homeless,” she said. “I had nowhere to go.”
That’s when another door opened. Her family was a candidate for transitional housing, which provided stability and allowed her family to save money.
“I was able to save up,” she said. “And a year ago to this day, I officially signed a lease with my name on it, with my children, and I did not look back.”