On more than one occasion I have been told that if you really want to witness generosity, you only have to observe the poor. Conveyed to me by those who live and work among the poor, I have always accepted this idea at face value and as a lesson in humility. Then I started to think about all the incredibly generous people I know and all the beautiful acts of kindness I have witnessed in my own middle class life. Either I am particularly blessed or all human beings are basically very good at heart no matter what road of life they travel. Both, I suspect. Yet the first hand observations of social workers and missionaries from around the world continue to resonate. They’ve come to this conclusion about poverty and generosity independent of and unbeknownst to each other. And so, there must be a deeper truth to it. Perhaps they make this claim because, like the impoverished widow in Luke (21:1-4), the poor give out of nothing and therefore… give everything.
Montoya’s whole life is a testament to this concept. Like many Caroline Center graduates, Montoya’s parents were missing in action. As a child, she bounced around from one relative to another, living with anyone who would make room at the table.
“I kinda raised myself,” is how Montoya describes it. By the time she was 18, she was on her own, with her first apartment and her first child. Which is not to say she was entirely grown up. The best job she could get was working at McDonald’s. She admits it was often difficult to make ends meet, no matter how creative she got.
“I’d take my paycheck that came in the middle of the month and pay half my rent. Then I’d take the second paycheck that came at the end of the month and pay the rest of the rent,” Montoya explained. The trouble was, there was little to nothing left over for anything else. And her family was growing. By the time Montoya was 23, she had 3 children. She would often rob from Peter to pay Paul and sometimes let things go altogether. Once they lived without power for 6 months.
“The lights came back on when I got my tax refund and paid my electric bill.” Though the father of Montoya’s 3 children did little to contribute to their welfare, still, when he was tragically killed in a senseless neighborhood shooting, Montoya felt particularly alone and vulnerable.
It was during this period when the first of many kind souls in Montoya’s life took her and her fledgling family under their wings and gave to her from their own limited resources.
“I lived a block from where I worked but I’d get up early, take 3 buses over to Cherry Hill and drop my kids off at a friend’s house.” When I asked Montoya why she travelled so far for day care, she answered directly.
“Because it was free.”
Though her friend could use all the income she could get from running her small daycare, she offered her services to Montoya free of charge, knowing Montoya didn’t have the means to pay.
At the same time, the manager of the McDonald’s where Montoya worked was impressed with Montoya’s work ethic. He and his wife acted as surrogate parents to Montoya and took a real interest in her and her children.
“They let me bring the kids to work at night so I could keep an eye on them. And they let the kids eat there for free,” a gesture which could have cost the manager his job.
“I saved a lot of money on food that way,” is how Montoya looked at it. “Somehow we made it. We always got through.”
Montoya was good at her job and took it seriously. She started out as a cashier, soon became a shift manager, and began to make a little more money. And so Montoya decided it was time to move her growing family out of their cramped apartment in West Baltimore to someplace a little bigger. After looking around, she settled on a rental house in the Lansdowne area. Montoya loved the house. There was just one thing wrong.
“I knew I couldn’t afford that house,” Montoya admitted. Within months, they were evicted. That was when another guardian angel from her own ranks stepped in. “I’ll never forget that day. I was standing outside the house with my children and all our belongings. There was an eviction notice on the door and we were locked out. I had no idea what I was going to do,” Montoya remembered. The woman who lived across the street saw them standing there and came out to investigate. She too was a single mother on a limited income.
“I explained to her what happened and told her not to worry…that I’d figure something out,” Montoya recalled. The woman disappeared back into her own house and returned a few minutes later clenching five hundred dollars. She handed it to Montoya and told her to pay her rent. It was all the money she had.
“She didn’t ask for it back, either,” said Montoya. “Eventually I did, though. Pay her back.” It was one of the kindest things anyone had ever done for Montoya and one of the hardest lessons she ever had to learn.
“That taught me never to live beyond my means again,” Montoya confided with true conviction. Soon, she moved out of the house and – thanks to yet another guardian angel – moved in with a friend. The friend lived in a tiny apartment and had children of her own, but she gave one of her rooms to Montoya and her 3 children and told them they could stay as long as they needed a roof over their heads. They lived that way for a year, until Montoya had saved enough money to get her own apartment – one she could afford without going into debt. It was a rule she learned to live by, even as her young family continued to grow. By the time Montoya was 32, she had gotten married and had 4 more children for a total of 7. It’s a decision some might call into question until you get to know Montoya.
“I never really had a family growing up…so I always knew I wanted a big family of my own.” There is an emotional logic to Montoya’s thinking that is hard to argue with. And getting married made Montoya feel “grounded.” Over the years she and her husband, Jaydee, provided for their children as best they could. Montoya continued to work at McDonald’s while Jaydee worked construction. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, he suffered multiple strokes and could no longer work. Committed to each other and their children, Montoya and Jaydee found a way to keep going.
“I never ask God to move the mountain…just help me climb over it,” Montoya explained with equanimity. The 9 of them lived in a 2-bedroom apartment for a year, living off of Jaydee’s disability and Montoya’s McDonald’s wages. Jaydee became a stay at home dad while Montoya headed off to work every day.
“The thing is, I love to work. I have worked since I was a kid. As long as I can wake up in the morning and have a job to go to, I feel blessed. I’m happy.” Montoya loved her job at McDonald’s and the manager and his wife continued to be positive influences in Montoya’s life (in fact, inspired by Montoya’s experience, the manager’s wife eventually started a daycare in the area). But because Montoya is a hard worker and has so much to give, she began to long for more.
“McDonald’s was great, but I wasn’t growing. I felt incomplete. Like I had more to give,” Montoya explained. She felt a calling to a different profession. She wanted to be a CNA/GNA (certified nursing assistant/geriatric nursing assistant). And so, despite the added hardship, she cut her hours at McDonald’s and enrolled at Caroline Center.
“Caroline Center taught me so much. Besides learning how to be a GNA, I learned more about managing my household budget, how to establish credit, go on interviews, and other practical things. The Caroline Center program is much longer than other programs like it, but it is worth every minute. Other programs cost you an arm and three legs and aren’t worth a penny,” Montoya testified. “Not only that, they don’t give up on you. Before you get your little pin, you are a part of the Caroline Center family. You are a member for life!” Montoya had done her best to turn her life around and God knows others had pitched in and helped, but it was Caroline Center who helped Montoya take a quantum leap.
“The counselors at Caroline Center are the ones who taught me, ‘You have to claim it’. If you really want something with all your heart, you have to claim it. You have to sacrifice and work hard for it. I fell in love with being a GNA. I love the work and the people. And when I did my clinicals at Stella Maris I fell in love with the place. Right then and there I claimed it for my own. I said to anyone who would listen, ‘I’m gonna work there when I graduate’. ”
Her Caroline Center classmates laughed at Montoya’s pipe dream. A job at Stella Maris is a coveted position for a GNA and even though Caroline Center trainees get special consideration because of their level of professionalism and expertise upon graduation, still there are no guarantees. So…what happened?
“I claimed it!” Montoya said proudly.
Today, Montoya, is a valued member of the Stella Maris GNA staff. She works a double shift from 7AM to 11PM, 3 or 4 days a week. On those days, Montoya is up by 4AM to catch the first of 3 buses in order to commute to her job in Dulaney Valley (where Stella Maris is located) from her home in the city.
“I love my job. I love everything about it. I love working with the elderly. Their kids are grateful I’m lookin’ out for their parents. They consider me family. Most of the patients come from loving homes, but some of them? Some of them just get dropped off and that’s it. A few of them? Their kids never visit. I’m their family now. I know what they like and don’t like. When they’re happy or sad. What their favorite dessert is. Sometimes I sneak them an extra cookie. You know, little things. Yeah…we’re family.”
As for Montoya’s own family? They are hanging tight. Jaydee does a good job of taking care of the kids while Montoya is at work and Montoya gets to spend quality time with the family on her days off. And they have saved enough money to change residences once again. Recently, they moved into a small rental row house on Mosher Street, just off Pennsylvania Avenue. The neighborhood is sketchy. Their block has a few boarded up houses and there are blue lights that signal back to the police station when there is trouble, mounted at the end of the street. But Montoya’s house has a little gate and yard and she and her family are happy.
“The way I look at it” Montoya said, “I thank God for the difficult times ’cause they make me appreciate the better times. I have been poor. Now…I can pay the rent and still have something left over. Things are good.”
Their new house is 2 stories. The living room has been converted to a master bedroom for Jaydee and Montoya and their 7-month old twins. Upstairs, the other 5 kids share 2 bedrooms. One has bunk beds with brightly covered bedspreads from Value City and a neat multi-colored floor lamp. The house is freshly painted white throughout and the floors are not yet worn. When they become so, it will not be out of neglect but most likely the rollicking of 7 growing kids.
“I love this house,” Montoya said with a smile as she looked around. So does her family. They seem happy there. After all they have been through – the evictions and tight quarters, and shared space – they now have a place to call their own. The day they moved in, their 11-year old son took one look around, turned to his mother wide-eyed with glee and said,
“Mom! It’s like we’re rich!”
Help Caroline Center help others like Montoya stake their claim. Click here for more information.