Stephanie Taitano remembers all too vividly the harrowing days in Reno eight years ago when she was more than eight months pregnant, separated from her boyfriend, and without the money she needed to make rent.
“The recession was happening. It was happening everywhere. I was working at Atlantis in the buffet and they kept cutting my hours further and further, and I just couldn’t afford my rent anymore. I was supposed to stay with another friend, but that fell through. I hit rock bottom. For me, it was the scariest thing. My Dad even offered me to go back to Seattle, but I just couldn’t see myself living with my parents again.”
The Family Shelter to the Rescue
Luckily, she says, the Volunteers of America Family Shelter in downtown Reno, which had just opened a maternity ward, saved her. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she remembers, even if it took some major adjustments.
“I was freaked out. I was so scared. I didn’t talk to anyone in the shelter for two weeks. I didn’t know who these people were. I was so afraid. But there were some good people there. You are going to find those who can’t learn a lesson. They are going through a spiral and they may not learn from it. Their poor children are being dragged through it. But there are also people who are going through hard times, and things happen, and there’s help. The shelter may be a first stepping stone. That’s what happened for me.”
A New Life
She got help to apply for Medicaid. Her son was delivered at Renown on Jan, 20, 2009, just as President Obama was being inaugurated so Stephanie gave him Barack as a middle name. Becoming a mother also changed her life.
“Before I had my child, I was living a very partying type lifestyle. I worked in casinos where alcohol was available at all times with bartenders who would hook you up."
Stephanie stayed six months at the shelter. A social worker signed her up for food stamps and helped get her own subsidized place in an apartment building she still lives in. She got help with child care and decided to go back to school.
“Everything was realigned. I started from scratch. Because of the shelter I ended up in college. I didn’t want my son to see homelessness ever again or the fear of not having food or shelter. I purposefully chose to do something for him.”
Stephanie has decided her long term goal is to become an advocate for children, especially those in poverty or from abusive households.
“The shelter made me realize what poverty can do to a kid. When you’re in the shelter I would say keep it light if you can for young children. Let them know it’s not forever, it’s not the end, but just part of the adventure. Kids don’t need to know all the facts of what’s going on. They are in a different way of thinking."
A Difficult Journey
Stephanie’s own childhood and early adulthood were mired in constant difficulties.
“I didn’t come from the best home. I lived in foster care for a while, with three different foster homes. They kicked me out when I was 18. My childhood was very disruptive. When you have lost trust in adults, it’s especially hard. I went through that and tried to find love in the wrong places because I was confused.”
She now teaches physical education in the local school system, making $10 an hour, and works summers in activity camps with the City of Reno.
Even though she gets government help and works, she sometimes seeks extra help in charity food lines.
“I’m not embarrassed to say it, but it’s a little humbling, Food prices have gone up. Everything is going up. Fruit has gone up a lot. Fruit is so sky high it’s easier to buy boxed food and they are wondering why we are having an obesity epidemic. I myself am always fighting my weight. I know it’s easier to buy the things that last. With everything going up, it’s keeping people poor. I get help for my rent. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know if I’d be able to stay in school.”
Help Don't Judge
She doesn’t understand why some people look down on people in our community who beg for money.
“We’re seeing a lot of people out on the streets asking for money. Some of them are doing it because they really need it. Some of them are doing it because we are giving it to them. I say we can’t judge. You never know until you’re in their shoes, what’s going on in that person’s life. I know because I’ve been there. I was homeless. I was scared. I had no one. You can’t judge the homeless. You can’t judge a family with a whole bunch of kids. We need to pay attention to how we can help people and less about judging them.”
Stephanie is scheduled to graduate next Spring with a UNR bachelor’s in human development and family studies. She hopes to go to graduate school next.
"Fear still comes into my life once in a while but I don’t let it thrive. I know where I am going, so I strive because of that.”