Editor's note: The Great Recession, which hit Elkhart County hard, is over and the economy is rebounding. Right? That's what some experts say, though occasional economic turbulence and local unemployment of 9 percent sometimes make it hard to believe. In this four-day series, Thursday through today, Sept. 9, the Elkhart Truth revisits a few of the many people hit by the economic downturn with whom we've spoken to see how they're faring. Read what they said, then and now.The series was done in conjunction with the British newspaper The Guardian. Reporters from the newspaper visited Elkhart in 2008 and again over the summer to gauge the local fallout of the recession and the impact of President Obama's economic reform efforts.Read Part 1, the Gonyon family's story, here.Read Part 2, Ed Neufeldt's story, here.Read Part 3, Craig Johnson's story, here.
ELKHART — Back in 2009, the sour economy wasn't the only thing on Umeki Williams' mind.
Her marriage had gone south, and lacking child support from her ex and having no job — no seeming prospects for work, even — the threat of homelessness loomed large. Maybe she and her four kids would end up living in a car, in the street, she worried.
“My only option is that if I don't find employment, my kids and I will go homeless,” she said three years ago as she frantically struggled to find work. Anything. A job flipping burgers would be fine. Corn detasseling? She'll take it.
“I had been everywhere,” she recalls. “I went to McDonald's and across the street at Penguin Point. I put in applications everywhere.”
Fast forward and it all seems like a bad dream that fades with the morning sun. The abusive relationship with her former husband is history. She has a steady job, no longer relies on child support or her ex. She has a home, her own, thanks to help from Habitat for Humanity; and her kids, ages 7 to 18, have a semblance of stability.
“I'm very grateful to where I'm at,” she said. “I never thought I'd be here.”
The transition hardly transpired from one day to the other. Likewise, in her new job serving as a women's advocate with iFiT, or individuals and Families in Transition, an Elkhart-based nonprofit agency, she hears from many women who are still struggling. The economic recovery is hardly a done deal.
“I see them every day, looking for employment, filling out (job) applications,” Williams said. “(They're) having interviews, but not getting employment.”
“GOD, I TRUST YOU'
In Williams' case, the path out of seeming hopelessness was hardly a solo effort. She had help along the way from friends, family and others, underscoring the import of the social safety net when the economy decides to take a plunge in the river.
Back in 2009, as she hunted for work, the operators of Visual Designs Hair Studio, friends, offered a hand. Since Williams lacked Internet access at home, the salon operators let her surf the web there for work and e-mail resumes.
“It was nice. It kept me hopeful,” Williams said.
Still, she couldn't get a break from her landlord on rent — she was living in Goshen — sparking concern she'd be booted to the street. She submitted to the will of God — “That's when I just said, 'God, I trust you'” — and called iFiT, an agency focused on assisting families in trouble.
Fortuitously, the other person on the end of the phone line was Jen Doty, iFiT's director of transitional housing. The two were friends back when they attended elementary school together in Elkhart and Doty almost immediately picked up on who it was on the line.
IFiT connected Williams and her kids with a temporary home, and the hard slog upward began.
Williams landed a job assisting the developmentally disabled, later switching to the iFiT job. A variety of classes and programs helped her get her finances in order and her debt paid off.
“She's just amazing. I can't say anything but positive things about Umeki and her family,” Doty said.
Then Doty floated a crazy idea — Williams should buy a house, all the better for creating familial stability.
“I was laughing on the inside,” Williams said, “because I didn't see myself in a home.”
Doty insisted. Williams overcame her initial incredulity, and more preparation, including home ownership classes, ensued. “I've never seen anyone work as hard as she did to own a home,” Doty said.
That's not to say that Williams hasn't had her doubts. “I kept thinking, 'I can't do this. I won't be able to,'” she said.
Support from family, friends and others helped, and she and her family moved into the new Habitat for Humanity home in Baugo Township late last year. “I didn't see this. I really didn't. It looked crazy,” Williams said.
Significantly, the move has had a big impact on Williams' kids, finally settled in a place they can call home. They're more involved in activities, have friends. Their grades are better.
Likewise, Williams has a whole new outlook. She has a smile on her face, counts herself lucky. “I just know that I was blessed,” she said.