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October 19, 2023

For someone who doesn’t sugarcoat as a rule, Cynthia Torres of Springfield—a 2023 graduate of Way Finders’ Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) Program—has a pretty sweet story to share. 

“When I first got into the program, I’m going to be honest, I was a hot mess,” said Torres, a mother of five who joined the FSS Program in 2017. “I came in with $35,000 in debt. To me, my kids’ happiness was everything, their smiles were everything to me. So I took all my credit cards, took family trips.”

In time, Torres, whose children range in age from 18 to five, received more and more credit offers. “I took them all, blew through them. I didn’t know you should only use thirty percent of your credit and all that, which I learned in the program. I was never taught to pay attention to credit.”

By the time she graduated in August, Torres had done what once felt impossible: paid off all her credit card debt. And seen huge growth to her credit score, too.

“It feels awesome,” said Torres of the strides she has made over the past six years, including the completion of two Way Finders’ workshops, Credit Success and First-time Homebuyers. “I know so much more now. How to get around things, how to save money. I’ve gotten rid of all my side bills, like Netflix, Six Flags membership, the kids’ PlayStation. I said, ‘That’s going bye-bye.’ And just not giving up, because I used to give up all the time.”

Her FSS journey, in fact, nearly came to an abrupt end shortly after it began.

“I got myself into some trouble. I was looking for the easy way out. I got caught doing the wrong thing at the wrong time,” said Torres, who spent some time in jail. “It was a really big mistake. I said, ‘OK, I have kids, it’s time to get myself together.’ So I called my worker at the time and he got me back in with the FSS program. Since then, I’ve never looked back.”

One of her first moves was to take a second job, working the night shift, to help grow her escrow account—established as a participant’s income and share of rent increase, to be applied by graduates toward education or a home, for example. 

“I work as a personal care assistant in the morning. Then in the afternoon, after I get the kids home, fed, and all set with their homework and stuff, I’d leave to work the nightshift as a supervisor at UPS in Windsor, Connecticut. Get out at two or three o’clock in the morning, super exhausted,” said Torres. “But because of my sacrifices, I’m where I am right now.”

Each week since 2020, she has received a phone call or check-in from Family Self-Sufficiency Advisor Evelyn Baez. Their conversations helped Torres keep her sacrifices in perspective—and influence her inner dialogue.  

“Evelyn is always in my head!” laughed Torres, who created a special ringtone for Baez. “As a matter of fact, just two weeks ago, I learned that UPS was no longer going to have a night shift. Evelyn hasn’t heard this yet. So I was like, ‘OK, what am I going to do now?’ Everything negative was running through my head. But I could also hear Evelyn saying, ‘Figure it out. You can do it. Know your potential. Know how smart you are.’” 

And Torres did figure it out—by negotiating a supervisor role with another company at the same site, at higher pay and with the flexibility she needs.

“The supervisor said, ‘Cynthia, you are the cherry on top of our cake! You need to be here,’” she said. “So everything just worked out. I didn’t have to call Evelyn for anything.”

“I’m so glad to hear this,” said Baez. “These are skills that I hope to have taught her along the way. To put up limits, advocate for yourself, know your worth, trust your gut. Take a pause, don’t make a decision right away. Stop and think of the consequences. I’m really proud of you, Cynthia. She’s graduating today, but she knows I’m just a call away.” 

Baez’s approach to mentorship—in her words, “no nonsense, tough love”—worked for Torres. 

“You may have a million people in your life to speak to, but nobody is going to tell you what you need to hear. They’ll go around it. Because they’re family, or they don’t want to hurt your feelings,” said Torres. “Evelyn goes straight to the point. ‘No, you’re wrong. You need to cut it out.’”

Baez was a key resource when Torres’s car—her lifeline to both jobs—broke down in June 2023. She bought a second car from an acquaintance, which ended up being a lemon. With two cars sitting in her driveway and bills piling up, Torres was at a breaking point. 

“When she called, I said, ‘Let’s figure this out together,’” said Baez, who wondered if Torres might qualify to make an interim withdrawal from her escrow account. “I looked at the regulations, presented it to my manager. And I was able to get her 30 percent, or about $3,000, for her to get back on track.”

With her debts in check, the escrow check Torres received upon graduation is going right into savings—to be the boost she needs to pursue homeownership one day.

“The FSS Program didn’t just help me financially, it also helped me to be a better person and lifted up my whole household. I am the rock and I was broken. Now everything is bonded together,” said Torres. “I got pregnant very young and didn’t enjoy my teenage years. Now I’m soaking it all in, I have everything going for myself, I feel pretty, I want to do stuff, my kids are glowing. My five-year-old tells me, ‘Mom, we’re just going to the store. You don’t have to get pretty.’ And I tell him, ‘Let me be.’ I never felt the glow that I feel right now.”