"I Am Neighbor" - Shawn

The greatest wealth is health
— Virgil

The cost of health is a conversation that comes up regularly with our neighbors. The cost of health care can cripple a family.  Even when wise health decisions are made, exercise is frequent and diet is healthy, the “unforeseen” can blow a hole into anyone's reality. Highly publicized social media campaigns  among other things have been utilized and supported,  just to help people cover the cost of being well again.

Shawn at home in her favorite chair.

Shawn at home in her favorite chair.

 For Shawn the “unforeseen” was a large beautifully ornate piece of furniture, which ended up taking  3 years out of her life. “I was hauling a big book case, like the ones in a lawyer's office, with 3 other men. One of the guys dropped his corner, and I tried to compensate for it. It felt like I had pulled a muscle, so I thought, ‘It’s Friday….Whatever, I’ll just grab some Tylenol,’ and I went home.” That pulled muscle turned out to be a crushed disk in her neck and a pinched nerve. She lost all feeling in her right hand and arm. It was fixable, but she would be out of work for months.

Shawn was working for an antiques restoration shop, a small company with only a handful of employees. When she spoke with her employer about health coverage after the accident, she was told that because she did not fill out an accident report form the day of the accident, the accident didn’t happened within work hours, and they were, therefore, not obliged to help cover the cost. None of her colleagues were willing to risk their jobs to vouch for her, so she had to take her employer to court, just so she could keep paying the bills.

Shawn dressed up as a nun and her daughter dressed as Hillary Clinton for Halloween

Shawn dressed up as a nun and her daughter dressed as Hillary Clinton for Halloween

Months later, after enduring torrents of verbal abuse from her ex-employer, the judge ruled in favour of Shawn. Shawn had  the forethought to record all conversations she had on the phone with her ex-employer, including the abuse. The judge ruled that either the employer paid Shawn worker’s compensation, or he would face legal charges of harassment and abuse, charges he would lose too. He chose the worker’s compensation.

The whole situation left a bad taste in Shawn’s mouth: She had been ostracized by other employers in the area and couldn't find work.  But she had to keep paying the bills.  So Shawn and her young daughter moved to Muskegon for better opportunities.

 To make the situation worse another “unforeseen” hit. After Shawn’s first surgery the doctor told her that they had found evidence of a degenerative bone condition in her spine. Unfortunately the condition is hereditary: her brothers, mother, and grandpa all have it. Her vertebrae are compacting down, literally crumbling away. Since discovering it, Shawn has had two more surgeries fixing some of her vertebrae, but ultimately there is no cure.  She can have other surgeries, but the main deterrent is physiotherapy, exercise, and pain management for the rest of her life.  And that's not cheap especially when there's no money coming in, so Shawn signed up for Medicaid.

Unable to find work, with worker’s comp running out and bills piling up, Shawn finally had to claim disability benefits. They pointed her in the direction of a local veterans housing facility. Shawn had served in the 126th Army Band of the Michigan National Guard as an oboe player. She had signed up with her parents permission right out of 11th grade,  and was honorably discharged months before the 126th was set to deploy to Iraq during Operation Desert Storm as medics in 1990.

“I jokingly say, ‘I defended Michigan with my oboe: STAND BACK, or I will play!’” It was this experience that qualified her for the free non-permanent, dorm room apartments. It was better than nothing, but after the allotted time, Shawn and her 11-year-old daughter were out on the street. With no place to go and no money for rent, they ended up in the Muskegon Rescue Mission.

Shawn didn’t want to be there. “It was really bad for us,” Shawn recalls.  Shawn was breaking the rules, smuggling food in for her daughter who would cry herself to sleep at night due to hunger.  “At some point I just realized, ‘‘I need to get out of here!’ My daughter was losing tons of weight, she was being really quiet and was intimidated by the other women there.”    

It was around this time that Shawn came across Community enCompass, quite by accident. She had seen signs for the Learning Lab, a computer room at Community enCompass open to the community where people can find help with job applications and resumes among other things, and she wandered in. It was here she overheard conversations about military housing assistance. Shawn was told that Community enCompass had resources to support female veterans with families. Two years later Shawn shares a two-bedroom bungalow with her daughter, who is in high school. Shawn pays part of the rent, and Community enCompass pays the rest. Through the help of West Michigan Works, Shawn found work with Pioneer Resources, providing care for people with physical and mental disabilities. Shawn enjoys her work. The physicality of it keeps her active, which helps with her spinal condition, and the work is flexible. She works part time so she can continue attending her physical therapy sessions.

One of Shawn's hobbies is to revive dying plants.

One of Shawn's hobbies is to revive dying plants.

Between Shawn's initial accident with an ornate bookcase and her finding her job with Pioneer Resources, Shawn was unemployed for three and a half years. As she looks back over the years of struggle, she is thankful. “It is definitely a blessing: my church, my family, and Community enCompass. I don't know where we would be without them. They are a strong part of what has gotten us this far.”

“Unforeseen” things can push anyone over the edge into poverty, vulnerable housing, or even homelessness. Accidents, medical conditions, the insensitivity of others, can all pile up on top of each other until everything breaks down. At Community enCompass, we encounter neighbors whose realities have been swallowed by their struggles to survive. We make it our business to walk alongside neighbors so that they are able to do more than survive.  Shawn and her daughter have incredible gifts to share with society, and she is in a place now where she can offer them up.  We are so proud to call Shawn neighbor, and look forward to seeing how her gifts add value to our community!