Two years ago, Kiah and Marcus Boss were at their wits' end.
Their marriage was shambling along. A mountain of bills towered over their molehill of cash. And for the umpteenth time, eviction stalked them.
Then, God sent up a flare. A church friend mentioned a program at Jewish Family Services of Greater Orlando that promised salvation.
"She was like, 'Girl, they'll pay your rent up,'" Kiah said. That was all she had to tell me, and we were sold."
So Kiah made the call. Soon, the Bosses discovered the Family Stabilization Program was more than a quick handout. The 7-year-old program, which strengthens money-management and family-functioning skills, bolsters job skills, and helps maintain or upgrade clients' housing conditions, is among the many nonprofit programs supported by the Orlando Sentinel Family Fund Holiday Campaign.
It was just the cathartic the 24-year-olds needed to purge the toxic money-management habits and decision-making that had poisoned their relationship since they met as students at Atlanta Job Corps.
First came love. Then came Jailyn. Then came Londyn, her sister. Then, in 2007, came marriage.
Followed by a blur of bad choices and bad consequences.
After landing fast-food jobs, they leased an apartment, then inexplicably quit their jobs, a decision they concede likely was colored by their fondness for drugs and booze.
That led to their first stint at a homeless shelter.
"We were crying," Kiah said. "We couldn't believe where we were."
They tried to kick drugs. It worked. Briefly. Their on-again, off-again addictions roiled their on-again, off-again marriage. They tried again in 2009, when they scored an apartment in Orlando. Bliss was short-lived. Another eviction, another shelter. Another separation.
Then, in March 2010, the Family Stabilization Program rescued them.
"We know that a lot of these folks have a lot of chaos in their lives," said Adrienne Cooperman, who oversees the program. "Just teaching them how to budget is not getting rid of that chaos. To be successful in this program, you have to be ready to change your life."
At last, the Bosses were. The program buoyed them with "shopping carts full of food," Kiah says, along with emergency housing assistance and gas for job hunting. Meanwhile, the Bosses committed to six months of case management, budgeting workshops and sessions with consumer-debt counselors.
Skills Kiah says they never had.
"He was a spender. I was a spender," she said. "They helped us create a bond together, helped us to work together."
And they graduated, better equipped.
"We can't say we have all the wisdom," Marcus said, "but we have enough wisdom to keep us going, to do the things we need to do to handle the things that come our way."
That's not Pollyanna talking. It's a solid bet, judging from the program's results. Eighty-two percent of clients have achieved better self-sufficiency, 90 percent have jobs, 45 percent have better incomes, and each of its 900 clients has maintained or improved his or her living situation.
Today, the Bosses work together at an Orlando commercial cleaning service. And two weeks ago, they moved into a $625 a month apartment nestled among towering trees.
Just then, their daughters, and their son, Marcus, 1, came bouncing in from their rooms for some impromptu show-and-tell, the girls with their dollies, Marcus bearing a truck. Smiles all around.
"This is home," Kiah said. "This is a program that changes lives."
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