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Income + stability + confidence: reflections from a proud FSS grad

For Jessica Ramirez, who recently reflected on her journey with Way Finders’ Family Self-Sufficiency Program, the past few years have brought some momentous changes. Punctuated by “little miracles,” “positive vibes,” “happy tears,” and “open doors.” Which, collectively, have helped her overcome struggles and fears of failing.

“When I first started, I had nothing,” Jessica says, of her 2017 mindset. “My life has changed in so many ways since joining. With income. With stability. With feeling capable of doing anything. I feel like a better person. I feel more mentally focused and fit.”

Back in 2017, Jessica was working as a forklift driver at a warehouse. She was making minimum wage—$11 at the time—while raising her young son, who is now 9. She didn’t think she could do more. It felt too late to pursue other things. She’d been on a waiting list for two years to take classes at Springfield Technical Community College to prepare for her High School Equivalency Test (HiSET).

Fast forward to 2021: Jessica passed her final HiSET test in March. Way Finders Program Specialist Sonia Colon helped her enroll in prep classes, link up with a tutor, and even arranged a last-minute testing space accommodation at the Springfield Public Library when Jessica ran technical difficulties at home.

“I’m a class of 2021 graduate!” Jessica says with pride. “Nothing is impossible!”

The Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) Program is designed to inspire just such confidence and transformation. Developed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and open to those receiving a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, participants team up with a mentor to pursue a tailored set of goals—over the course of five years—needed to move toward economic stability.

As a participant’s income and share of rent increase, an escrow account is established. Upon completion of the program, participants may use these funds toward purchasing a home or going back to school, for example.

Beyond passing the HiSET, Jessica has met her other goals, all with the ongoing encouragement of Sonia. She has completed classes on financial planning and preparation for homeownership. She has maintained fulltime employment and is a manager at Balise Car Wash, a role that brought a significant increase in pay—“It’s a big WHOOP-WHOOP!” Sonia and Jessica sing in unison, regarding this detail.

And her credit? “I went from a very big zero to high 750s. Now I can go for the house I’ve dreamed of,” says Jessica.

Jessica also has her sights set on obtaining her commercial driver’s license (CDL): “So I can drive trucks and see the world! It would push me to get the income I need to comfortably own my home.”

Sonia is helping with this, too, by seeking out funding through MassHire for the CDL classes.

“It’s thanks to Sonia that I’ve made it this far. She helped me in so many ways, just guiding me on the right path,” says Jessica. “She worked her magic and pushed me, cared about me. Even when I felt down, she kept telling me, ‘Hey, you’ve got this, keep your head up, we’ll get through this.’ I’m so grateful for all those moments we shared.”

Jessica is set to graduate from the FSS program later this year, with over $10,000 in her escrow account, which she plans to apply toward a down payment on a home. She will also soon relinquish her Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, as her income exceeds the limit guidelines.

“Now that I am stable, it’s going to be really easy to give it up,” says Jessica. “I hope another family takes advantage of the voucher and services like I did.”