At the end of the summer, Diane Parris boarded a flight from Pennsylvania to Florida. She was headed back to Sarasota to start life over after a divorce two years prior.
After a year of living with one of her daughters in Colorado and another in Pennsylvania, she decided it was time to come back. She missed Florida and her job at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota.
Her burgundy Cadillac, filled with her clothes, was shipped to Florida to meet her. It was one of the few things she got to keep after the divorce, she said, aside from some furniture, which she ultimately sold, along with many of her shoes and purses, keeping only her favorites.
The next chapter of Parris’ life would begin in a mobile home, a place where she said she first cringed when thinking of moving to. The muscles tensed in her face and neck when she recalled the day she realized how her living arrangement would change once she returned to Florida.
Parris, while she raised her three daughters in Oklahoma, lived a comfortable, affluent life, she said. For decades, she stayed home to raise their children and had the luxury of not working.
Her reality now is different from what she had hoped for herself, Parris said, and the last few months have caused her to self-reflect. That self-reflecting has left her feeling more empowered rather than how she said she first felt — embarrassed.
‘I thought at this age, I’d be playing golf and going to the country club’
The life she pictured herself living at 74 was filled with days of golfing in a country club and shopping, she said, laughing. But the life she lives now is nearly the opposite of what she hoped.
She received financial assistance through Season of Sharing, but things are “still frightening,” she said. Golfing and shopping are no longer on her lists of priorities or expectations.
Adjusting to her new home and expenses began to overwhelm her, Parris said, once she moved into the home in June. Her daughter bought the manufactured home for $4,000, and Parris managed to furnish nearly the entire home with furniture from Goodwill.
“It’s been tougher than I thought,” Parris said.
Working in the gift shop at the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and her Social Security benefits are her only two incomes. And Parris’ part-time hours at the aquarium have been reduced to around 20 hours each week because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She expected her bills to be more affordable than what they ended up totaling, she said. The electricity bill she thought might be $50, but Parris said her first bill was $200. Then she paid about $150 for cable and streaming services. And her lot rent is about $850 each month. Then the car insurance payment was $160. And she spent about $300 or $400 a month on food, she said.
Since July, Parris shaved down her bills in any way possible. She cut back to basic cable. Now that bill is $45. She switched car insurance providers. That bill cut in half. She asked for budget billing on her electricity. That bill about halved, too. Food pantries and SNAP assistance have replaced some of the money she spent on groceries.
The cost of living was overwhelming, but the isolation she first experienced was, too, Parris said. The events that would normally take place in the neighborhood during the summer were canceled because of the pandemic. Her white Havanese, named Serafina, has been her constant source of company since moving back.
‘One day everything is OK, and the next day can be completely different’
When Parris began researching what financial help she could receive, she thought about the many times she was on the other side of the human services system.
She doubted she would be eligible for the help she has seen many others need.
“I’ve always been on the other end of the spectrum,” Parris said. “I’ve always been the one donating or volunteering or giving food to the food banks and helping a needy family and not really thinking much about the other side of it, other than wanting to help.”
Through Senior Friendship Centers, Parris received Season of Sharing dollars to cover her lot rent for September. While completing the paperwork for the application process, Parris said she remained doubtful; it felt like the possibility of her getting help was too good to be true.
“I felt like I’d won the lottery,” Parris said. “I couldn’t believe that it was really going to go through.”
Ola Medrzycki, the Friendship at Home Manager of Senior Friendship Centers in Venice, said Parris reached out asking for help after she realized her hours would be cut back because of the pandemic.
“I know she is still working, and I think she is counting every hour because her Social Security is very low,” Medrzycki said. “The work, it’s making a big difference in her budget.”
Medrzycki learned that Parris was rebuilding her life after her divorce. In working with Parris, Medrzycki said it was one of the cases where she felt she was helping “the right person,” someone who “deserved” help.
“We all know you never know what is going to happen,” Medrzycki said. “One day everything is OK, and the next day can be completely different.”
Season of Sharing gives a financial ‘buffer’
The Season of Sharing help gave Parris time to build a financial “buffer,” she said, though she still has to be frugal — another lesson she has learned.
“It’s a good lesson for me because I’d just see something, buy it. Go to the grocery and just get what I needed, or thought I needed,” Parris said.
During the late summer months, she found herself seeking one of the food pantries in her area. Before going, she questioned it.
She questioned whether people would judge whether she truly needed the help, driving up in a Cadillac. She even questioned what she would wear and if she may be judged for that, too. She prayed she would not see anyone she knew.
“I was really embarrassed,” Parris said. “So, I was actually crying when I drove up. I went, ‘I’m sorry. I’m really trying.’”
Later, Parris said she would question telling anyone she went to the food pantry for help. But she now is no longer afraid to share information about local resources with people she knows may need the same help she did.
Parris said the last few months have been a learning experience for her. She has a view she could not see before.
“Maybe when I get out of all of this, I’ll volunteer to counsel women because I just want to help other women like me who never expected to be in this situation and say, ‘Yeah, it’s OK. Don’t be embarrassed. It happened to me,’” she said.
How to help
The Season of Sharing fund was created in 2000 as a partnership between the Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. The goal is to get emergency funds to individuals and families on the brink of homelessness in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. Every dollar donated goes to people in need. There are no administrative fees and no red tape. Funds may be used for rental assistance, utility bills, child care and other expenses needed to help families get back on their feet.
Donations to the Season of Sharing fund may be made online at cfsarasota.org/season-of-sharing, or by sending a check (payable to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County) to Attn. Season of Sharing, 2635 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34237. Contact the foundation at 941-955-3000 for more information or to request a credit card form. All donations are tax-deductible.
Angie DiMichele covers the Community Foundation of Sarasota County’s Season of Sharing campaign by highlighting the stories of people in the community who are being helped to avoid homelessness. DiMichele also covers nonprofits in the region and how they are responding to the impact of the coronavirus. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.