Special to Frontdoors Media
For Syri Gerstner’s kids, Kahlyn, 7 at the time, and Kori, 5, that first Friday in November 2012 was like any other. Except it wasn’t.
“I got the girls off to school, and then I broke down. I went a little crazy,” Gerstner recalled. “I was in my apartment throwing stuff and yelling at God. ‘I’m a good mom. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. Why is this happening to us?’”
The kids came home that afternoon to an empty house. Syri had sold as much as she could on Craigslist. “I knew I couldn’t pack it up and take it with us,” she said.
They were being evicted. Homeless. “When the girls came home, I told them weren’t going to be here anymore.”
Three years after fleeing a domestic situation in Chicago and relocating to the Valley, Gerstner and her family joined approximately 3.5 million Americans who become homeless every year, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Approximately 1.3 million are children.
“I had always lived paycheck to paycheck, but the company I was working for, which had given me up to 50 hours overtime over and over, even if it was only at $10 an hour, cut back on my hours,” Gerstner said.
Gerstner called a crisis line. “I was hyperventilating. I could barely talk. I couldn’t calm down. The woman on the phone was worried about me. Although I felt like dying, I told her I’m not going to kill myself. She was so concerned. She was my first angel and I don’t even know her name.”
Her angel sent Mesa Police and an emergency case manager who found temporary emergency shelter at Family Promise in Scottsdale. Gerstner, who worked from home handling emergency roadside service calls for U-Haul, kept her part-time job and found a second one.
“The second week of January 2013, I got into Save the Family’s transitional housing program, a 10-month program where you paid 30 percent of your income for living expenses,” she said. “That was so great because it included electricity and everything and I could save everything else.”
She progressed to Save the Family’s low-income housing program and then its Affordable Rental Movement program, working two full-time and one part-time job. “I had a five-year plan. I didn’t care if I got five hours of sleep every day for five years and no days off, I was going to buy my kids a home.”
Today, she owns that home and works full-time running the Family Promise graduate program, staying in contact with former shelter residents for up to 24 months.
And, she sits on the Save the Family board of directors. She had been volunteering as an arbitrator for Save the Family when a board member approached her for an interview.
“I had no idea what a board of directors did, so I looked it up. I felt overwhelmed and not equipped to do it. I knew I couldn’t give them money,” Gerstner said.
But she does contribute, and the impact is critical.
“I sit on a committee and we discuss Save the Family’s role, if they’re meeting expectations and what might work better,” Gerstner said. “When we have those conversations, I’m inspired. I put things out and say what I believe will and won’t work. I tell them my perspective, having been there, and they listen.”
Just like she listened when her kids told her she “needed to give back. So, of course I volunteered at the place I felt was family and that my kids loved and where they were loved. All the love is free, but you have to work hard for the rest of it.”