OCEAN CITY — For the past three years, a local woman named Casey has had nowhere to call home for the holidays.
But this year, she not only has a home, but she feels like she’s gained a family too.
“You never realize how much you enjoy decorating, until you have nothing to decorate,” said the 48-year-old Maryland native who has been staying at Diakonia for the past two months. “I’ve never been to a place like this one. It truly feels like a family, and I don’t feel homeless here.”
Unfortunately, Casey knows a thing or two about homeless shelters as she’s been bouncing around from one to another from Las Vegas to Salisbury over the course of the past 36 months.
“Christmas was just another day where you try to make it through the day,” she said. “Things got so bad that I became sort of a Grinch, and this year, my spirit feels full again.”
For 25 years, Casey was a forklift operator in shipping and receiving. She worked in California, Arizona, and Nevada for years after leaving her childhood home of Silver Spring, Md. She did some construction, and wound up installing lighting fixtures and ceiling fans when the economy tanked in 2008.
“I was good at what I did,” she said. “I worked hard, made good money and had a great life on my own. I was happy.”
But the economy wasn’t what put Casey on the streets. It was her health.
“One day, I realized that my hip was hurting while going up stairs,” she said. “So, I took a few aspirin to manage the pain and went on with my business. Soon the pain was unbearable and I could hardly walk at all.”
Casey was taking triple the dosage of ibuprofen to manage the pain and all those pills eventually gave her acid reflux. She didn’t have health care at the time, and since Arizona was a “right to work” state, she felt that she could be fired at any time if she didn’t go to work.
“[President George W.] Bush was in the White House then so it was much harder to get insurance,” she recalls. “By the time I was able to get the surgery I needed, my femur had fused into my pelvis due to degenerative arthritis.”
To make matters worse, the surgery fixed her hip, but a nerve was cut during the surgery and the damage is unfortunately permanent.
“I’m damaged and I don’t know if I will ever be able to work for the rest of my life,” she said. “Now I have degenerative arthritis in my knees, my shoulders and my back. I’m in constant pain.”
But she says that pain paled in comparison to the immense frustration she felt trying to navigate through the “system” in hopes of getting disability insurance.
“I’ve been waiting for three years,” said Casey, “and the waiting forced me out onto the streets.”
These days, the Affordable Care Act has helped Casey get the medications she needs to dull the constant pain, but she is still waiting on her disability check. However, Diakonia has provided more for her than just a roof over her head. She now has help. “There are people here who can help me make a stronger case for myself and show me what I am doing wrong,” she said. “I was denied once because I didn’t have the proper doctor’s assessments that I have now so, hopefully, it will finally work out.”
Still, after years of struggle, Casey believes she finally has figured out the true meaning of the Christmas season.
“It’s amazing and almost funny what you see when you can’t participate in all the commercialism of the holidays,” she said. “I have food, I have a roof over my head, and I know that Christmas is about family, and I finally feel like I have one here. I am thankful for everything that I have.”
Creating A Feeling Of Home
The Christmas season is a busy time at Diakonia and one of the most fulfilling times of the year to help people who have fallen on hard times, according to Diakonia Executive Director Claudia Nagle.
When I stop and I look at all the work that goes into making this happen it’s just gives me an amazing feeling,” said Nagle. “The amount of passion and care and overwhelming sense of pride in the community is unparalleled, and I’m so grateful to be a part of it. It’s why I do what I do.”
All 40 beds at Diakonia will be full on Christmas morning, and there are five families with a total of seven children who will be opening donated presents under the tree.
“These people are rebuilding their lives, and they are working so hard to get back out there on their own again,” said Nagle. “We try to make sure this is a safe and loving environment, especially during the holidays, because many of these people haven’t had a good Christmas in a long time.
Nagle applauds the massive outpouring of support from the community and volunteers.
She says that sense of family starts with decorating and overflows into gift giving and family-style meals together.
As for Casey, she realizes that when the Christmas season ends and the decorations are taken down she very well may still be waiting for her disability check.
Yet, she says she is optimistic that when she does get back on her feet, she will not forget the sense of family that Diakonia has provided her.
“Even after I’m able to move out of Diakonia, I can’t see this place not being a part of my life,” she said. “Whether it’s folding clothes or helping in the food pantry, I just want to make sure I’m helping someone other than myself. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know this is a safe place and it’s the best place for me to be right now. I’m home.”