Last year, as she and her six kids celebrated Christmas in the car where they had been living for weeks, "my daughter and my older son started to cry, and I cried," the 36-year-old mom recalls.
"My daughter, she told me, 'Why is this happening?' and I didn't have an answer for her. We were still in the car. I felt really bad because…," the mom says before tears from that memory wash away her words.
"It's OK," interjects an energetic Julie Sperandeo, the Journeys/The Road Home case manager who helped rescue this family of seven from their plight. "Remember, it's just where you were, not where you are."
Spending this year's holiday in their own three-bedroom apartment, the children will open presents made possible by their mom's recent promotions at work. They might even discover some extra goodies under the Christmas tree, Sperandeo says while flashing a smile worthy of Santa Claus. To appreciate the present, it helps to know the family's past.
Growing up in Ecuador, the woman we call "Pilar" to protect the privacy of her children immigrated to the United States legally with a younger sister and brother on March 13, 1993. They lived with a relative in Arlington Heights. Although Pilar had graduated high school in her native country, the 17-year-old enrolled at Rolling Meadows High School.
When she got pregnant, though, Pilar dropped out of school, moved into an Arlington Heights apartment with the father and gave birth to their first daughter in October of 1994. The father worked a morning shift and took care of the baby when Pilar left her job stocking clothing for a store in Schaumburg's Woodfield Mall. After the birth of a son in February of 2000, Pilar quit her job to stay home with the children while the father picked up a second job. The family added a second boy in December of 2001.
After Pilar left her partner because of his alcohol problem, he returned to Ecuador. She went back to work.
Learning English from her brother's language CDs, Pilar was able to leave her children with her sister-in-law and work full-time as a cashier at a clothing store in Randhurst Shopping Center in Mount Prospect. No longer able to afford her two-bedroom apartment in Arlington Heights, she moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Mount Prospect. Her daughter and youngest son shared a bedroom, her older son slept on a pullout couch and she slept on a sofa.
She dated a man she met at work and they eventually moved to a three-bedroom apartment in Palatine. The couple had a son in October of 2007. When she gave birth to her fifth child, a boy, in January of 2009, she no longer could juggle her work and home schedules.
"I didn't come back (to work) because I didn't have time for the kids," Pilar says. Her partner, who still worked at Randhurst, took a second job as a cook. The couple separated in 2010 before he knew Pilar was pregnant. She says the father currently is being held by authorities for violating his immigration status.
Forced to find a job at a fast-food restaurant, Pilar moved back into a two-bedroom apartment in Rolling Meadows, where the four boys shared one bedroom, the two girls shared the other, and the mom slept on a couch. She managed for nearly a year-and-a-half.
"But then the rent went up and it was difficult to pay," she says. The state's All Kids insurance plan paid for her 11-year-old son's appendectomy, but the boy had surgery complications and needed additional care at home. Pilar took off so much time from work, she lost her job. Already behind on her rent, the family was evicted.
"I went to a hotel, and then, when the money was finished, I slept in the car with my kids," Pilar says.
Some nights they would stay in their old apartment complex parking lot. Other times she would sneak her 2001 Chrysler 300 into a hotel lot. If someone needed to go to the bathroom during the night, she'd drive to a 24-hour fast-food restaurant.
"I don't know how, but we slept in that car," Pilar says. "I felt really bad, not for me, but for my kids."
The youngest slept in a car seat on the floor, and the back seat lowered to make a bed for the other five. She had blankets and pillows, but it got cold.
"When the car was warm I'd turn it off to save gas," says Pilar. When they needed heat, she started the car and opened her window a bit to make sure the family wouldn't be asphyxiated. In the morning, she'd drive the two older boys to school. For nearly two months, the family lived in that car.
What little money she had squirreled away went for hot meals at McDonald's since she had no way to cook. Her brother in Des Plaines gave her what he could. After that awful Christmas, Pilar began looking for help. On her third phone call, she connected with Journeys/The Road Home, a Palatine-based intervention and prevention charity that serves the homeless and at-risk populations in more than three dozen communities across North and Northwest suburban Cook County. Visit journeystheroadhome.org for details.
"I knew, somewhere in the back of my head, I wanted to be helping people," says Sperandeo, a successful businesswoman from Wauconda who worked in sales, marketing and social media for a Lake Zurich company before changing careers to join the staff at Journeys, and exchanging her three-bedroom townhouse for a studio apartment in Arlington Heights. "I took a $40,000 pay cut because I think this is what I wanted to do."
Sperandeo began her career at Journeys on Jan. 3, 2012. Two days later, Pilar showed up with her car full of kids. That was the last night the family slept in the car.
"We had to do some maneuvers so the whole family could stay together," says Sperandeo, 40, who notes the PADS program emergency shelters set up in suburban churches generally separates males from females and had never had to deal with a family this large.
Pilar's permanent resident visa expired long ago and she says she worried that officials "would ask me why I have six kids and no job and no money." Instead of questioning how she got there, Journeys offered her a path out of her situation.
"That's why we're here," says Bob Arnold, president of the Journeys board of directors, which recently changed the name of the charity from "Journeys/PADS to Hope" to "Journeys/The Road Home" to better reflect their mission. "We want to get people into homes."
Pilar and her children slept at PADS shelters, and drew complaints about the kids running around, noise and dirty diapers from three kids who couldn't be potty-trained in the car.
"I need to get this mother a job," Sperandeo thought.
There were more immediate barriers to overcome. Working with other suburban charities, Sperandeo got the family three car seats and a 10-year-old minivan, persuaded a judge to drop $1,575 in traffic tickets Pilar compiled for driving with too many passengers and not enough seat belts, combined three single-housing units to make the family a new three-bedroom apartment in Palatine, filed the paperwork to renew Pilar's permanent resident status, got an increase in her government subsidy benefits from $600 a month to the $950 for which her family qualifies, enrolled her kids in school and helped Pilar get more than 60 job leads, one of which landed her a job at a McDonald's in Palatine.
"We held hands every step of the way," says Sperandeo, who brags about the mom's promotions and seems as thrilled about Pilar's new life as Pilar does.
Pilar wakes at 6:45 a.m. every weekday to drive her 18-year-old to the high school she had quit when they were homeless. The 12-year-old catches his bus 10 minutes later. The grade school bus leaves at 8:23 a.m. with her 10-year-old. A bus picks up her preschoolers, ages 3 and 5, at 12:20 p.m. The mother takes her 2-year-old along as she picks up her daughter from high school at 2:35 p.m. Pilar leaves for her job at 3:25 p.m.
"Before I leave, I do everything," says the mom, who depends on her oldest daughter to warm up dinner and put the family to bed before Pilar arrives back home about 1:30 in the morning. Pilar started out paying $300 of the $900 monthly rent for her Journeys-subsidized apartment, and now has increased her share to $375.
"That's what we do. We work on the goals," Sperandeo says.
Last year, Pilar's little plastic Christmas tree was in storage at her brother's house. This year, she has the tree decorated with french fry boxes from McDonald's.
"I don't want to remember the past," Pilar says, allowing herself a smile. She focuses on the future.
By next Christmas, or the Christmas after that, Pilar hopes to be in a place of her own, supporting her family without help from others.
"She's slowly starting to get it all together herself," Sperandeo says as the mom's smile grows.
"I like where I am now," Pilar says. "I think I'm doing good."