Aaron Manuel stood barefoot on the street Mother’s Day morning. He had run out of his smoke-filled house holding the dog under one arm and his little girl under the other. He texted his wife, Amber, who was away for the weekend. Thankful that their son was at Grandma’s, he sent Amber pictures of their home going up in flames.
The Manuels and seven other families lost their homes in the fire. Mercifully, everyone escaped unharmed. But picking up the pieces has been exhausting, frustrating and financially devastating.
The week after the fire, Amber remembers, “My husband had no shoes.”
The hard work began: the Manuels had to find a home, keep Aaron, Jr. and Athena in their schools and replace everything from birth certificates to bedroom furniture. They learned to navigate a system they never before needed to navigate.
All of the fire survivors were invited to a gathering of social service agencies that would guide them through the transition. Amber and Aaron had never needed help before. They were surprised to learn that because of the generosity of neighbors in local communities, North Hills Community Outreach could provide financial and emotional support and many more resources.
“There are people who really want to help people in need and genuinely care about other people’s well-being,” Aaron says. When the Manuels received help beyond what they needed, they “paid it forward” to help other survivors.
“North Hills Community Outreach provided us with grocery gift cards and store vouchers, and Famous Footwear cards so Aaron could get shoes,” Amber says. When the family found a new house, they were able to start replacing things they’d lost.
Other families received even more extensive help from NHCO. They received assistance for security deposit and first month’s rent, as well as housing lists. They discussed support offered through NHCO’s Family Development Program.
The Manuels and the other Sample Street families could pick up the pieces and start over. They have a new home nearby, and their children are sleeping restfully again.
“We still get phone calls from NHCO, asking if we are okay and do we need anything,” Amber says. “I’ve cried so many times thanking them. We wouldn’t have what we have without the help.”
Ron Donnelly was serving in the United States Army in Germany when he suffered a traumatic brain injury, causing bilateral hearing loss for three months. Back in the U.S., Ron was attending school and working as a temporary vocational counselor with a government agency, but needed neck surgery. During recovery he badly injured his arm and took a leave. He couldn’t get a work release while he recovered, but he returned to work part-time, using paid leave so he could continue to pay bills.
Ron used up his time off, but worked without pay so he could help the servicemen and women who needed his guidance. During recovery, Ron returned to paid, part-time status, but his income was not enough to cover expenses.
“I made sure my child support was paid and my kids’ needs were met, but I was starving. I had no money to live. I worried about getting my car repossessed,” recalls Ron.
Ron’s landlord posted an eviction notice, which put him in danger of losing partial custody of his daughters, now 7 and 10. With insufficient income, limited use of his arm, and the threat of losing his home, Ron became desperate.
He asked NHCO to help him develop a plan to gain control over his chaotic situation.
“My situation was temporary but I was in dire need,” Ron says. “NHCO helped with emergency food, and school supplies and gift cards for clothing and shoes for my kids.”
NHCO worked with the landlord to reconsider the eviction, secured a grant toward Ron’s back rent, and collaborated with a veteran-focused agency to get Ron’s rent fully paid. Ron remained in his residence with uninterrupted shared child custody, and the kids were spared the stress of adjusting to a new home.
Although still healing and coping with bilateral tinnitus, Ron is thrilled to be supporting himself and his family.
He has recently moved and is working full time as a permanent government employee, where he is passionate about helping other veterans find and retain employment — giving Ron’s success story a particularly happy ending.
That someone is Sabrina Jones, and when she learned about North Hills Community Outreach’s Community Auto program, those qualities paid off in a big way.
Sabrina, 27, applied for a low-interest car loan through NHCO’s partner Ways to Work. “When I was approved, Community Auto was the first place they recommended I go,” she says. Community Auto had received a donation of a 2002 Buick Le Sabre with 16,000 miles that met Sabrina’s needs.
The car was priced 33 percent lower than what a dealership would have charged, plus it came with a two-year warranty built into the loan, current inspection stickers, a one-year AAA+ membership and more. Sabrina knew that owning a car would open doors to new opportunities. “I didn’t have much time to maneuver and things needed to be done immediately,” she says.
“The service was everything I needed and they don’t just sell the cars to anyone,” she says, noting that car ownership is a big responsibility. “There’s insurance, gas, wear and tear. I was very grateful for the opportunity.”
Teamwork and partnerships played a big role in Sabrina acquiring her vehicle. She got her loan through our Ways to Work partner; Community Auto received the car donation through Jewish Family and Children’s Services; and volunteers test drove and washed the car as well as taught the mandatory car-care workshops that Sabrina attended before purchasing her vehicle.
Recently Sabrina began training for a full-time job with a security firm. The commute will be 30 minutes, but she doesn’t mind.
“I wouldn’t be able to get to that job without this vehicle. To have one consistent job is the best thing for me right now.”
She says a prayer upon waking, asking her higher power for help getting through each day and saying thanks for the opportunity for the car and the job.
“This has been really, really good for me,” she says.
Two years ago, Jodi, who lived in Millvale, was working in the title insurance and mortgage industry as a loan officer when she and her husband lost their jobs. Money ran out quickly, things looked bleak, and Jodi became depressed. A friend told her that she could get emergency food at NHCO Millvale and sign up for food pantry. On her first visit a caseworker told her, “We give you the tools to help yourself.” Jodi recalls, “That’s when I realized NHCO could help with so much.”
Things got worse before they got better: her unemployment ended, and Jodi and her husband separated. But NHCO was there to help, enrolling her in utility assistance programs, arranging for bus passes and providing seasonal sharing projects. Jodi began to set new goals. She enrolled in NHCO’s WorkAble program to prepare for her job search and took computer classes (although she kept giving up her spot to other clients!).
Meanwhile, Jodi began volunteering at NHCO. Receiving services while volunteering helped her to become confident and self-sufficient. “I thought, ‘I’m 63. I can do this.’ I’ve been there and I tell people I know what they’re going through.” Her caring way with clients prompted her acceptance into Allegheny County’s Senior Training and Employment Program (STEP) which provides training and job readiness assistance to help those with limited employment prospects. Through STEP, she became a receptionist at NHCO Millvale while continuing to receive our services. This volunteer experience improved her interpersonal and verbal skills.
Jodi no longer needs NHCO’s services, and “My whole outlook on life is better.” She’s back together with her husband and is seeking other nonprofit job opportunities. The combined experience as a client and volunteer was “the best ever. I love what NHCO’s programs do,” Jodi says. “It’s great when I can hand someone groceries and they’re so grateful, and I can feel for them…because I’ve been there.”
John Williams is a natural optimist, but there was a time not long ago when his future looked grim. John’s unemployment was running out, and although he had received a grant to return to school to learn skills for work in the natural gas extraction field, his car’s transmission blew. No transportation could mean no school, and no school would mean lost job opportunities. He began taking the bus to school, but with transfers, the trip took up to three hours each way. A part-time construction job was waiting in the wings, but it required a car. With a wife, Debbie, and two young children to provide for, John knew he needed reliable transportation, and fast.
Then John learned about Community Auto, a program of North Hills Community Outreach. “I knew this was excellent opportunity to an affordable and reliable vehicle,” John said. John and Debbie had enough money saved to purchase a car from Community Auto and with a promise of a job in hand, John met the requirements.
In April 2013, John bought a car. “It helped me go to school and work and I had transportation for the kids. It was a blessing,” he said. In October, he finished his classes, received his Heavy Equipment Certification and Commercial Driver’s License, and started on-the-job training as a track operator, “a dream job, the full package,” he said. “I’ll be able to take care of my family well.”
Despite some dark years of adversity and difficulty, “I knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” John said. “Purchasing a car through Community Auto has changed my life in so many ways,” he continued. “You take for granted how truly important having transportation is. It opened my eyes to the little things and how wonderful it is to have a car.”
Melissa was working in the mortgage industry for eight years when her company decided to stop offering a program for first-time home buyers. She had helped manage cases as an analyst, but now, like many Americans she found herself downsized.
Making matters worse, she was raising two young children on her own. To make ends meet while unemployed, she sold her car and started shopping at thrift stores before finding NHCO.
She enrolled in our utility assistance and Family Savings Account programs, where she was paired with Mark Scott, a volunteer coach. Together, Melissa and her coach set a goal to purchase new, energy-efficient windows to lower her utility bills and a $2,000 savings target that would be matched from state dollars, if she met her savings target within three years.
Already having an undergraduate degree, Melissa decided to enroll and study accounting to realize her dream of becoming a certified public accountant. Along the way with dollars still tight, she and Mark, a retired chief financial officer and CPA, developed a workable budget, and he even helped her study.
Within 13 months of enrolling in our savings program and nearly two years ahead of schedule, Melissa met her savings goal and new windows were installed at her home. She landed a new position after passing her CPA certification test.
“For the last two years, I have felt like I have been pushing a car uphill through mud,” Melissa said. “The help received through NHCO gave me the courage to keep pushing. It is because of you that I am able to look back on this hard time in my life and smile.”
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