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2021 graduate Frances Rojas on the FSS Program: Questions that count, conversations that matter
“So, what are you up to?” or “How’s the job?” or “What’s new?” Such questions form the basis of many an encounter between adults—especially at holidays and family gatherings. They scratch at the surface and may shine a bit of light on what’s happening in your life—or not: “Same old!” or “I’m good, busy, but good.” Then it’s on to the passing of appetizers, the tending to children, the watching of the game.
As Frances Rojas of South Hadley so aptly observed, “As an adult, no one really asks you about certain stuff. Because you should know it, because you’re grown. You know what I mean?” Things like managing money and finances, or working toward employment goals.
Luckily for Frances, she has had many in-depth conversations about these topics and more through her participation in the Way Finders’ Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) Program. Her mentor, FSS Specialist Luz White, has been Team Frances since they linked up in 2017, two years after Frances’ mother died.
“It’s nice to have someone who pushes you, touches base with you, and believes in you,” says Frances, who works as a family caseworker for the Center for Human Development. “Yes, the money I earned came in handy. But what really helped was the emotional help and support, especially from Luz. I love her. She’s awesome.”
Establishing a trusting, supportive relationship is at the core of the FSS program, which aims to help recipients of a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher—Frances inherited a voucher from her mother—to find greater economic stability over three to five years. Graduates can also apply funds from an escrow account (established as a participant’s income and share of rent increase) toward education or entrepreneurship.
Or, as Frances did, toward homeownership. A new resident of South Hadley, Frances has a big personality—and big love for her one-year-old daughter. “Mrs. Valentina—she’s a handful already! She’s happy, she goes everywhere. She’s so hyper now, she just wants to explore.”
Such exuberance and energy runs in the family: Frances, who is also currently enrolled in school for criminal justice, has frequently worked multiple jobs.
“Because you just got to make it happen! In 2017, I was working for a cleaning company and at Taco Bell, and doing Uber,” she says. “Now I’m only working one job, and even though I have a daughter, I feel like I have so much free time. It feels easier, I’m more laid back and a little calmer, more relaxed. I like spending time with my daughter.”
Getting to this point wasn’t easy. But from the time Luz invited Frances to join (“I said yes, that sounds sweet, who wouldn’t want to participate if they’re helping you to do better in life?”), she was all in. Setting goals. Attending workshops. Opening up about her struggles (“I get frustrated fast—that’s one thing about me. I felt comfortable enough to show Luz that side, like ‘This is what I really want to say.’ And she’ll help me think of how to communicate better, to get better results”).
When asked to elaborate on her growth over the program, Frances rapidly fires off win after win: Landing a better job (“I like helping people”). Paying off her car. Resolving a past due bill with Eversource. Improving her credit by more than 50 points (“I learned that using more than 30% of your credit hurts your score—I was using like 90%”). Graduating with nearly $3,000 in escrow. Receiving $5,000 for the relinquishment of her voucher. Buying her first home (“The neighbors are very nice, we got cookies when we moved in! Did I tell you that, Luz?”)
And, a month before her September closing, Frances received both a raise and a promotion. The timing of which made her decisions—to buy a single-family house versus a multifamily house, to give up her voucher—feel even more right.
“A lot of people told me I was a little crazy to let go of Section 8. But I’m young, I’m blessed to be healthy and able to work. And I’m too grown to be reporting all the changes in my income, I didn’t like that for my daily life,” Frances says. “And maybe I could be a landlord in the future, not yet. This house is meant to be mine, I’m happy. It’s a stepping-stone to where I want to be.”
Both mother and daughter are finding much to love about their three-bedroom home, which is near a park and includes a grassy lawn, off-street parking, and a huge kitchen. “That’s my favorite part! I do enjoy cooking, but you won’t catch me cooking every day. Every other day.” Frances also loves to decorate, and now has the space and freedom to do so.
“When I moved in, everything was gray. I painted upstairs because my room in my last building was gray,” says Frances, of the one-bedroom condo she rented in Springfield’s Kimball Towers. “I was like, ‘You know, I don’t want gray on the walls right now—I want white.’”