Introducing Our Self-Sufficiency Award Winner 2018
In 2005, at the age of 19, Erica Stouffer got pregnant. The birth required an emergency C-Section and caused a number of health complications that resulted in her not being able to work for about a year. She was living at home with her parents but had no income to support her or her newborn, so she applied for Welfare Assistance and WIC for her daughter Isabella. After a year of receiving assistance through Welfare, she was required to choose one of two different tracks to continue to receive assistance: the EARN (Employment, Advancement and Retention Network) Program which required that she become employed, or the KEYS (Keystone Education Yields Success) Program, and attend school. She decided to go through the KEYS Program at Westmoreland County Community College and continue to receive Welfare Assistance and WIC.
In 2006, Erica enrolled at WCCC full-time but experienced academic challenges along the way. In 2008, she secured a part-time Work-Study position at the college. In 2008, she also became eligible for housing assistance (Section 8) and decided to move out on her own for the first time. Erica’s relationship with her daughter was important to her so she had to give some serious thought to their living arrangements. She moved from Derry, PA to Greensburg while still working at the college and attending school. She was fortunate to be able to obtain childcare at the college so she took her daughter to work with her each day for the next year. Between 2008 and 2011, Erica cohabitated for a few months with her daughter’s father until the relationship became too abusive. Fortunately, he decided to walk away from the relationship, but in revenge, vigorously pursued child custody. To this day, Erica is still tormented and harassed by her ex on a consistent basis.
In 2011, Erica decided to attend Mt. Aloysius College in Cresson, PA but it was not a very good match for her and her daughter. She was working two part-time jobs and also dealing with the continued custody battle. It was a difficult adjustment as she had moved so she would be closer to the new college and away from her family. For a while things were good. However, around the time that her daughter started Kindergarten, Erica lost a close friend and one of her part-time employers closed their doors. She sought new employment but did not have much success. She felt lost. She knew it was time to move back closer to home, near family and basically start over. She figured she had to either stay in the area near school, find employment outside of the surrounding city, spend a lot on daycare and stretch herself too thin, or just go back home. She knew what she had to do. So, she moved back closer to home, started working a part-time job and went back to WCCC to obtain a degree.
After changing her major a couple of times and accumulating close to 100 credits, in June 2014, Erica received an Associate Degree in Liberal Arts from WCCC. While Erica was proud of her accomplishments, she knew she needed to further her education since her employment opportunities were not getting much better. Soon after graduation, Erica was introduced by a close friend, since deceased, to Westmoreland Community Action’s Mothers Making More (M3) program. M3 was created as a strategy to increase opportunities for single mothers to earn family sustaining incomes by advancing their education in targeted careers. M3 assists with underlying barriers to furthering their education. Erica applied to the program and was accepted; immediately she began receiving guidance and assistance with returning to school. The program helped her apply to Seton Hill University in the Human Services Program and granted her one of their two available scholarships.
Over the next couple of years, Erica struggled both financially and emotionally (still battling over custody of her daughter). In fact, in 2015 Erica lost custody of her daughter Isabella over unfounded allegations. She was crushed and didn’t know what to do. She continued to work and go to school but getting out of bed each day was a struggle. After a vicious legal battle, in October 2017 Erica received 50% custody of her daughter.
WCA’s Mothers Making More program provided both financial and moral support to Erica through all her crises. They provided not only the scholarship, but paid for major car repairs, Summer classes, school supplies and provided a laptop computer. The program staff, especially Carlotta Paige, M3 Program Manager, was emotionally supportive and helped keep her spirits up when she was feeling down.
In May 2017, Erica’s daughter Isabella and immediate family members got to watch her walk across that stage and receive her Bachelor’s degree from Seton Hill University. Her twin sister cried like a small baby at the sight of her sister receiving her degree. Erica said that “this special moment was one of the proudest moments ever” in her life.
After graduation, Erica continued to pursue entry-level positions and was still working part-time jobs up until the first part of 2018. In March, she accepted an entry level, full-time position in human services and began her new career path. She continued to receive welfare benefits (including food stamps) until the end of May when she was no longer eligible because of income. Around the same time, she was advised that she successfully met all of her goals for a housing program and at the end of May purchased her first home for her and her daughter.
Erica wants everyone to know:
“Personally, I want to thank the specific programs and caseworkers that have helped guide me on my journey so far: Department of Public Welfare, KEYS Program, WIC, Housing Authorities (Westmoreland, Indiana, and Cambria Counties), Mothers Making More, and Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. Also, I would like to thank Casey Cavanaugh from the KEYS Program and Carlotta Paige for their personal support in helping me throughout the years in the programs, while attending college. I have great admiration for them both. I look up to these two women, and am very thankful for their dedication and quality with their work. Thank you for letting me share my story.”