Sonia and Evelyn: A window into how the FSS Program helps participants realize their potential

November 15, 2021

When was the last time someone saw potential in you that you couldn’t see—or voice—on your own? When was the last time someone genuinely and persuasively advocated on your behalf—and relished the experience of helping you get ahead? 

Meet Sonia Cartagena. Her relocation from Puerto Rico to Massachusetts in 2004 has not been without barriers: Language. Unemployment. Feeling discouraged. The mother to a 17-year-old daughter has found community through her church, but has no family in the area.  

In 2019, Sonia connected with the Way Finders Family Self-Sufficiency Program. Her goals were to find employment and improve her credit score—and to have some help along the way.  

This help came into Sonia’s life in the form of a notebook—and the relationship she has formed with FSS Specialist Evelyn Baez.  

“In the four months that I’ve been working with Sonia, she has moved fast. Every time we connect, it’s like OK, this is your goal. This is your assignment,” Evelyn says. “Anyone I work with knows that I give them a list of things to do, and they need a notebook at home where they’re writing it all down. And I’m writing, too, about what I need to do for them.” 

Such focus and attention to goal setting is a key part of the FSS Program, which is designed to help participants (those receiving a Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher) to move toward economic stability over the course of five years. Participants work closely with a mentor to take steps that will ultimately increase their income. As that happens, and a participant’s share of rent increases, an escrow account is established. Graduates of the FSS Program may use these funds toward purchasing a home or going back to school, for example. 

As Evelyn has gotten to know Sonia, who earned a bachelor’s degree in human services in Puerto Rico, she has been impressed by her patience and perseverance—and her potential. She connected Sonia with an eight-week job training program through the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission, which helps individuals with disabilities to live and work independently. Through this training, Sonia worked with a job developer to prepare her resume and job applications. 

“The job developer, he was matching Sonia with CNA postings. Which is fine, and she wanted to do that,” says Evelyn. “But then I told Sonia, ‘You’ve got a bachelor’s degree and just finished this course. Why not try to get something in your field? You know, get your foot in the door. And then down the road, you practice your English, your confidence level comes up, and then you could apply for another position.’ I mean, I see Sonia doing case management someday, because she’s just so patient.” 

Evelyn followed through on her thinking and emailed the job developer. Thanks to her efforts, Sonia landed a part-time job in human services with Mental Health Association in Springfield, where she works as a direct support specialist. She hopes to transition soon to a full-time role. 

“I am working with people who have some mental disability. This is a program that helps people with this condition to keep them independent,” Sonia says. “My job, it makes me feel very useful to the society, so that’s a good feeling.” 

Evelyn’s pride in Sonia’s accomplishment is evident. “I’m just really happy that I was there for her to kind of bounce ideas back at me, and we were able to put our heads together. I wanted her to see the bigger picture and see the potential that she has. And she’s proving that right now.” 

Sonia is grateful for the support system she has found through the FSS Program. “I can say that it works, for people who desire to improve their situation. It’s a good, good way to achieve your goals and improve your life.”  

Illustrations by Marcy Paredes