We met Kim Ellison and her family three years ago when the Silver Spring Interfaith Housing Coalition asked us to make an excruciating choice. Kim's was one of two struggling families who were facing eviction. We would be able to provide a temporary home to only one. The two families were the finalists among many applicants who were about to become homeless because they could not afford to live in Montgomery County.
Eight of us from our synagogue had volunteered as "housing mentors" for the coalition, which maintains a small stock of rental apartments and houses as transitional homes for the poor. The goal is to fight homelessness by giving needy families two to five years of subsidized housing while a mentor team helps them try to find a permanent home.
We sat around a table at Temple Shalom on that pivotal day in 2001 and interviewed Kim and Traci, two mothers facing harrowing burdens. Traci was living in a motel, raising five children ages 6 to 17 after separating from a husband who had abused her for years. Kim and her husband, Tim, who worked a lifetime at menial jobs, had seven children. Then Tim had a stroke and died, leaving Kim, at 41, to raise 4-year-old twins and five other children ages 11 to 19.
Each woman poured out her heart to us in halting, pained answers to our questions. After they left the room, we were told that it was not just a contest between sob stories, but a judgment of which family was most likely to benefit from our help and eventually achieve independence. I remember saying to my temple friends that I felt uncomfortable, that it felt like we were playing God.
We were asked to numerically rate each family, and we narrowly -- but unanimously -- chose Kim. When we talked later, we agreed that God seemed to play a hand in the choice. There was an indomitable spirit in Kim that was unmistakable and was clearly guided by her powerful faith. Later, when we met her children, they were respectful, polite and spirited, and we all felt great about the potential ripple effects of helping Kim help seven children achieve stability in their uncertain lives.
That summer of 2001, we enthusiastically pitched in, rented a truck, and moved Kim and her brood from a rundown place in Olney where they faced eviction into a nicely renovated four-bedroom home owned by the coalition in the Franklin Knolls neighborhood. We then went to landlord-tenant court and helped her win a fight with her former landlord, who had illegally withheld more than $1,500 of her security deposit.
Since then, we've tried to help Kim through countless problems: her battle with diabetes, her fight to raise her family on a salary of $24,900 as an administrative aide in the county Department of Health and Human Services, her countless difficulties with child care, children's health, overdue bills, schools and, constantly, her scramble for transportation.
For years, Kim struggled mightily to use Metro and Ride On buses, expensive taxis, and the kindness of mentors, friends and family to hitch rides for herself and the kids. Over time, we helped her learn to drive and get a license. We arranged for a temple member to donate an old but reliable minivan and to get it insured. Over time, Kim got a promotion and a 25 percent pay raise yet remained far below the poverty line. Her minivan was a godsend, but now she has four teenage sons who not only want to learn to drive, but soon would have to drive to get to jobs that they needed to help support the family.
Last month, I thought of a small way to help. I'd been driving a 1989 Ford Tempo that belonged to my 86-year-old mother before she gave up driving. The old car had only 46,000 miles and still ran beautifully. It was the perfect car for Kim's kids for local driving. I had decided to buy a used Jeep and give the Tempo to Kim.
I made $150 worth of repairs so it passed Maryland inspection and then got it registered in Kim's name for another $150. Kim called me excitedly on a Thursday to tell me she'd just received the title in the mail and said her sons were excited to have a car to learn on. I told her that I'd drop it off at her house Saturday, and we also talked about the mentors helping her sons learn to drive.
At 2:30 a.m. that Saturday, a loud rapping on the door awoke my wife and me as colored lights flashed outside our house. I quickly prayed that nothing horrible had happened. It was Montgomery County police. On our quiet residential street, a stolen Buick had smashed into the Tempo, which was parked in front of our house, with such ferocious force that it had driven the car backward more than 10 feet and twisted its front end. Whoever had stolen the Buick and destroyed Kim's car had run off before the police arrived. Not only was the car stolen, but it was stolen from a handicapped person, according to the tags.
I stood in my bathrobe on the dark street, feeling as crushed as the old car and then feeling guilty. I could have delivered the car to Kim a week earlier. Why hadn't I done it sooner? I couldn't get back to sleep because I dreaded the prospect of breaking the news to her. When I called her hours later, I told her that maybe she could collect insurance on the damage. But her policy didn't cover that. I told her that maybe she could get a few hundred dollars in salvage. But the car was virtually worthless, even to junk dealers. We would donate the junker to charity, but Kim probably can't even use the tax deduction.
As we talked, I was grasping for some explanation. I was accustomed to having a certain order and control in my life, so I struggled to find meaning in what had happened. I found myself trying to suggest to Kim that maybe the Tempo got destroyed for a reason. That it wasn't the safest car and that maybe it was somehow for the best that her sons never got to drive it. I was trying to say that it was God's will. But who was I to make such judgment?
Kim was quiet. Her disappointment was palpable and familiar. When she answered she did not invoke God. Rather it was a lesson that she had learned long ago from her mother and that she had seen repeated often. "You can never really count on anything in life, ahead of time," she said. "Not until you have it."
Perl, a former writer and editor for The Washington Post Magazine, is director of newsroom training and professional development.