Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

NORCROSS -- Gina Rowell was working two jobs to support her family when her van broke down.

Unable to travel to her job in Cumming, the Norcross resident and single mother of four suddenly found herself unable to pay rent. A month behind, she was evicted from her apartment in July of last year, with early termination and late fees tacked on to the money she owed.

With no place to live and no immediate family in Georgia, Rowell and her four children -- ages 15, 12, 9, and 6 -- began sleeping in their broken down van.

"When I came (to Georgia), all the things I envisioned for us, living in a van is not one of those things," Rowell said. "(But) everything just kept spiraling and overlapping, and I just couldn't catch up."

Having moved to Gwinnett County in summer 2007 for the schools and warmer climate, Rowell said she could have gone back to Michigan but that wasn't in her long-term plans.

"You go through feeling, 'Was this the wrong decision that I made?'" Rowell said. "I could've went back home to Michigan, but that's not what I set out to do."

So she began looking for local, temporary assistance to secure housing. Having previously used the food and clothing services offered by the Norcross Cooperative Ministry, Rowell contacted that nonprofit agency. The organization was able to assist her with paying for a room at an extended stay hotel for herself and her children.

"Once we got into the extended stay, (the kids) were OK with that," Rowell said. "They knew it was kind of small and cramped, but it was better than being in the van."

Having had to give up her job in Cumming, Rowell was hired at a local Target but received limited work hours there and needed help when the family's time at the extended stay was up. Perusing a list of resources she obtained from the Norcross Cooperative Ministry, Rowell was dismayed to find many organizations had long waiting lists for their programs. Then she came across the IMPACT! Group.

"When they called me and told me to bring the paperwork in, I was shocked because I didn't expect to get in as quickly as I did," Rowell said.

The Rowells were accepted into the Transitional Housing Program in which the organization provides case management and subsidized housing to homeless families with children.

While in the program, Rowell paid $125 in rent and was able to pay down the debt she owed.

"It was hard in the beginning because I was only getting in 15 hours a week at Target," she said, "but it was something and (the IMPACT! Group) beared with me."

During Christmastime, Rowell was introduced to 12Stone Church of Lawrenceville. A group within the church had approached the IMPACT! Group about helping a family in need during the holidays.

"I found the IMPACT! Group, had a couple conversations with the case managers and was really looking for someone doing all the right things and just couldn't get past the start line," said 12Stone member Rick Barnett. "We wanted to help someone with the best of intentions."

The IMPACT! Group gave Barnett the names of a couple of families in need of assistance. He shared their stories with the small group from 12Stone.

"We wholeheartedly decided that Gina and her kids were a family that we would like to help," Barnett said.

Rowell met with Barnett, his wife and another couple from the church.

"I just told them the situation and it got a little intense because for me, I don't cry a lot," Rowell said. "I just try to stay busy and keep focused on my goal."

Two weeks later, Rowell and her children were invited to attend Sunday services at 12Stone, where they received some unexpected gifts.

"They gave us a small box wrapped up in wrapping paper and in each layer there was clue to what the gift would be," Rowell said. "We ended up pulling off 12 layers. One of the things was help with getting my debt paid off that was stopping me from getting into housing."

When all 12 layers had been unwrapped, Rowell's family had been given tickets to the Georgia Aquarium, a sewing machine, a washer and dryer, a Wal-Mart gift card for new tires for the family's van, $100 scholarships for each of the children, a family membership to a local YMCA, a savings account with a little more than $1,000 and toys for the kids.

"We really wanted to find someone that we could make a benefit in their life and provide something more than just a bike for the children," Barnett said. "We wanted something to have a lasting impact."

In the more than nine months since Christmas, with the help of the IMPACT! Group and 12Stone Church, Rowell has been able to voluntarily leave the Transitional Housing Program a month before her yearlong term was set to expire in September, at times working three jobs to be able to care for herself and her children.

"She's one of those people who just stumbled in a really tough spot but her intentions were always really pure and good," Barnett said of Rowell. "It's nice to see that she's on her way."

"Without prayer and determination," Rowell said, "and the people that I have encountered throughout the year. I wouldn't have been able to see (that) day so soon."

A little more than a year after becoming homeless, Rowell has achieved financial and housing stability. She is now working full time in a permanent position with Panasonic doing clerical work. With the money she has been earning, Rowell was able to leave her job with Target earlier this fall, giving her weekends and holidays off to spend with her children.

"I don't think they really, really understood the impact of (being homeless)," Rowell said of her children, "because they still got to do certain things and with the gifts that 12Stone gave, it definitely lifted some of their sadness if they had any."

Now that Rowell is in stable housing with a stable job, she hopes to write a children's book with the help of her four kids.

"We have experienced a lot of things a lot of kids may not recover from or may not talk about," Rowell said. "It's just a way to help them be more creative and just get back to being a kid and not worrying about all the adult problems we have had over the years."