A Kissimmee, Fla., family, forced from their home by the coronavirus pandemic and living in their car, has received a potentially life-changing outpouring of support from around the world following a story in The Washington Post.
“To say we’re overwhelmed is an understatement,” said Sergine Lucien, who was living with her husband Dave Marecheau and their two children Jayden, 12, and Phoenix, 7, in their 2005 Saab hatchback. “I thought people had no interest in helping us, especially in a tough economy. For people to give like that when I know they are hurting too ... wow.”
Since the story appeared on June 6, more than 1,900 people from across the United States as well as Australia, Switzerland, Kuwait, Canada and the United Kingdom have donated in excess of $130,000 to the family’s GoFundMe fundraising page. Marcus Lemonis, the chairman and chief executive of Camping World, gave the family a new 27-foot Coleman recreational vehicle to replace the 1998 trailer they lost at the outset of the pandemic.
“I love people I don’t even know,” Sergine said of the donations.
Even when the economy was booming, Dave and Sergine, like many families in the tourism-dominated area around Orlando, struggled to find affordable shelter. A 2019 study by the University of Florida estimated that nearly 44,000 families with children were homeless in the state. The Orlando area, which has been battered economically by the pandemic, has by far the largest concentration of such families in the state.
Last year, after six years of the motel life, Dave and Sergine had saved enough to finally make it out. They bought an RV and rented a spot in a quiet and clean mobile home community. Sergine promised the kids they would never go back.
In late March, Dave, who was working as a prep-cook and part-time dishwasher, lost both of his jobs to the economic turndown. Because they didn’t have a fixed address, Dave and Sergine weren’t able to collect their $3,400 in stimulus payments, nor were they able to collect unemployment from the state’s troubled and overwhelmed system.
Those who gave to the family said they were motivated by a sense that the country’s institutions — its health, social welfare and criminal justice systems — were failing its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
“I am just very disturbed at what’s happening in the country,” said Anne Seaman, 61, of Asheville, N.C., who donated after reading the story. “I almost think that the purpose or goal [of the Trump administration] is to make government ineffective.”
Seaman said she has seen the costs of government’s failings in her own life. Her son died in 2017 of an opioid overdose after nearly a dozen years of struggling with addiction and bouts of homelessness. His struggle was made worse by the problems with the country’s health care system and a lack of treatment facilities, she said.
Others who gave pointed to economic pain that the pandemic has caused in the places where they live as a motivator to help. “Most of the people I know are teetering on the edge,” said Liz Lincoln, 35, of Deer Isle, Maine, where the lobster industry has been hurt by the widespread restaurant shutdowns. “It feels like everything could be gone in a blink of the eye.”
Lincoln thought of what it would be like for her husband and four kids to live in a car. “No one should ever have to live as they have, no matter what circumstances brought them to the place they are,” she said.
Amid the relentless rush of bad news — “I feel like I have lived 100 years of history in the last week,” said Kathy Creighton, 67, of Annapolis, Md. — the donation to Dave and Sergine was often described as a small way to do something good.
When she was living out of her car, Sergine often felt as if all the places she turned for help — the government, churches, charities — were overwhelmed or inaccessible to her. One evening while bedding down for the night in a McDonald’s parking lot, a few miles from Disney World, her daughter Phoenix spotted a man feeding a group of feral cats.
“Mommy look, they’re all lined up,” Phoenix said of the cats.
“The homeless people around here don’t get fed as well as the strays,” Sergine said.
Today, Sergine, Dave and her children have been most stunned by the generosity they’ve experienced. For the first time since March, Phoenix and Jayden are sleeping in their own beds. The money they received is in a newly opened savings account. The refrigerator in their RV is full of food.
“I am able to go food shopping,” Sergine said. “I’ve got chicken and broccoli and stuff I can actually cook.”
She has started work to get a license to open her own housecleaning business, she said. Dave said he is continuing on at the $14-an-hour construction job he started last month.
Earlier this week, Jayden took part in a conference call with the creators of Brawl Stars, the video game he played to pass the time in the car. When he was living in the car, Jayden spent hours sketching characters from the game in his spiral notebooks. After the story appeared, Supercell, which makes the game, set up a video chat with him to talk about art and animation.
“It felt like talking to friends,” he said of his conversation with the artists and designers, who were based in Finland. He said the company offered to buy one of his sketches.
“What was the name of the city where they lived?” Sergine asked him.
“Helsinki,” Jayden replied.