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The FSS Program: the right setting, the right time, the right ears

May 9, 2022

Spotted in front of the Way Finders Housing Center at 1780 Main Street in Springfield on Monday, March 28, 2022? Two women, all smiles. One escrow check, to the tune of $3,500.

This brief exchange—between Way Finders FSS Specialist Evelyn Baez and check recipient Nicole Camacho Torres, a 2022 Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) Program graduate—was the culmination of many years of work and effort. We caught up with Nicole and Evelyn right before their meeting. 

“When I joined the FSS Program, I was working retail,” says Nicole, a resident of Springfield and mother of two young boys. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I was tired of making eight dollars an hour. The program helped motivate me to finish dental assisting school.”

Created to help recipients of a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher to achieve greater economic mobility, the five-year FSS Program prioritizes the setting and reaching of goals (for education, personal finances, homeownership, and more) via long-term mentorship. As a participant’s income and share of rent increase, an escrow account is established—and these funds are awarded to graduates upon successful completion of the program.

Nicole, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved at age one to Springfield, heard about the program in 2017. That’s when her mother bought a house and transferred her housing voucher to Nicole. 

“I was 23 and on my own. I had three months to find an apartment,” Nicole says. “A case manager at the time mentioned the FSS program and I looked into it. I would definitely recommend it, it’s something that’s helpful. Especially if you don’t have a lot of support. They will coach you, they will direct you to where you want to go, they will keep up with you.”

After Nicole outlines briefly outlines her accomplishments, Evelyn speaks up: “So can I chime in for a minute? So her goals, they were quite extensive. It was to obtain full-time employment, to purchase a vehicle, to graduate from Porter and Chester Institute’s Dental Assisting Program, and to obtain a dental radiology certificate. And to complete financial education and first-time homebuyer education. And to improve her credit.”

Today, Nicole works full-time as a dental assistant at Palmer Dental, which she joined in 2019 after working in a similar role for three years in Springfield. Every time she gets paid? “We go out to Friendly’s to eat ice cream!” Other favorite ways to spend time as a family—her son Kyran is five, Grayson is three—include outside play, trips to the arcade, and video games.

During the start of the pandemic in 2020, Nicole was among the many who saw reduced hours. Her voice, in speaking of this time, falters for the first time.

“When the pandemic happened…” she says. “It was a lot, it really affected everything. And then I had to stop working, I had a medical leave, I had to have surgery.” 

Despite these challenges, Nicole’s credit has grown by nearly 200 points over the course of the program. 

When asked how she describes the FSS Program—its value, its purpose—to a friend, Nicole is candid: “I honestly, I don’t think I have talked about it to anyone in a long time. Because, you know, I work so much and I’m always thinking about or with my kids. I don’t really have so many friends to talk to about anything. I’m more like I go to work and, you know, do what I have to do with my kids.”

Because while at work, or at day care drop offs, or preschool pickups, how many of us do seek guidance or support regarding personal finances or ways to improve credit? Or how to budget or prepare for homeownership? We don’t—it’s not the right setting, not the right time, not the right ears. And when you work full time and have young kids, those are the spaces you occupy.

Which is what makes having someone like Evelyn—right there to chime in with encouragement and support—different. And welcome. 

“My style is ‘I’m going to coach you. I’m going to give you your space, but I’m there in case you need me,’” says Evelyn. “Even when she had her surgery, I was texting her once a week, ‘Are you OK? You have help?’ I didn’t want to bother her, but I wanted to check up enough on her so that if she needed something that I could facilitate, I would do that. Nicole’s been very persistent, I really admire that about her.”

A space that Nicole envisions for her future—as she determined after taking first-time homeownership education? A condo. 

“I think a condo would suit me!” Nicole says. “I want to be that person one day, having my own condo. It was good to learn all the stuff that I did in the program.”