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Rewriting their lives

Redwood City teen chronicles tough times as mother battles homelessness, illness

By Mark Emmons
MERCURY NEWS

REDWOOD CITY — She wrote the poem, the short one that always makes people stop and think, before everything fell apart. Before her mom got sick, and they lost their home and bounced from motels to shelters, living in fear that they might descend into someplace even worse.

Running.

To a place where you can be free.

To a place where judgments aren't made.

Toward comfort and joy.

To anywhere but here.

Sabrina Villanueva Avalos, now a 16-year-old junior at Sequoia High School, admits it's eerie how words that popped into her head seemingly out of nowhere later would become the sadly perfect description of their plight as she and mother Tammi Villanueva struggled to overcome homelessness.

"Now when I reread it, I can say, "Oh, this applies to my life just a little bit," Sabrina said.

Today, with the help of InnVision Shelter Network and through their own sheer will, Sabrina and Tammi have their own, small house. Wish Book readers can help families like Tammi and Sabrina by donating to InnVision Shelter Network to fund transitional shelter and supportive services.

Day-to-day life continues to be filled with challenges as Tammi copes with Parkinson's disease and breast cancer. But as she talks about the past two years, Tammi often glances at her daughter — the good student who already is a published author, often writing poems and short stories about traumatic experiences that no teenager ever should have to endure.

"My daughter never gave up on me," Tammi said. "She just continued to love me. No mother could be more proud of her child. I just feel bad because she's had to take on so much. It's been awful on her. But she's my reason for living."



They've always been a team, just the two of them. Sabrina's father is not part of her life. So as Tammi, 48, worked for years as a waitress, a young Sabrina sometimes would come to work with her, quietly drawing and writing out of the way.

Sabrina is the reason why Tammi did her best to ignore the shaking in her right hand that was the first sign of Parkinson's. But the tremors worsened and eventually forced her to stop working. Then, one day in 2012, Tammi was fighting back tears when she picked up Sabrina from school.

They were being evicted from their San Carlos apartment. Tammi felt like a failure. Sabrina was plagued by guilt that somehow this was her fault.

What followed was a nightmare that even now doesn't seem real for both of them. Their downward spiral took them to maybe 15 places as they lived out of suitcases. Tammi even contemplated the possibility of living out of their car. Sabrina spent her entire sophomore year of school without a permanent roof over her head.

Tammi's health declined as she was underwent a hysterectomy and received the cancer diagnosis. She already had been dealing with deep depression.

But InnVision Shelter Network provided them with a safe haven, first at an emergency shelter and then in the Redwood Family House transitional program in Redwood City. There, staff watched how a clearly ill mother and a wiser-than-her-age daughter worked as a tandem.

"I can't even imagine how all of this weighed on Sabrina," said Laura Sunseri, children's services coordinator at Redwood Family House. "Not having a home. Her mother being sick. Trying to do well in school. But she's so resilient. They both have been model clients and so motivated to find housing for themselves."

But the clock was ticking. While Tammi had a disability voucher to help pay for housing, she only had a limited amount of time to find an apartment or lose the subsidy. So she put off cancer surgery for several months as she searched without success for an apartment. She stopped counting after looking at 160 places.

"I had one person say, 'We don't deal with people like you,' " Tammi recalled. "I just said, 'I hope for your sake, you're never in my position.' "

Sabrina only could think about her mother's health.

"She kept saying, "Cancer is not going to kill me," Sabrina said. "I would get so mad. That's a great attitude. But realistically, cancer kills people. So it drove me insane."

Through it all, Sabrina continued to write. She poured her life onto page after page of notebooks that now fill boxes. The absent father. Her mother's struggles. Cruel, thoughtless things said by people she thought were friends. It became her outlet for all the pain and uncertainty.

"I've basically been writing the story of my life," she said. "I was scared. I had breakdowns. I just tried to think that everything was going to be OK eventually, even though I didn't really know."

When a landlord called back with a house, Tammi took it sight unseen. It's only about 700 square feet, and Tammi can't tell you how many gallons of paint she applied to help make it livable. But in September, it was theirs.

"We sat down on the floor here and said, 'This is our home. Nobody can take that away,' " Tammi recalled. "And I cried happy tears that I didn't know still existed."

Tammi recently had cancer surgery and is undergoing radiation treatment. She takes nearly 600 pills a month for her ailments and must allow her daughter to write her name because she no longer can. Money also is still short.

Sabrina, somehow, has thrived. She said the past two years have given her the determination to never be in this situation again. She's a reporter for the school newspaper, and her dream is to attend Northwestern University's acclaimed Medill School of Journalism.

And after everything she has endured, it's worth asking Sabrina a question. Is your story the basis of a great book?

Her smile is radiant.

"Everybody else seems to think so," she said. "I'd like to think that I could write it."

To learn more about InnVision Shelter Network, go to www.ivsn.org.


SABRINA'S POEM

Running

Running.

From everyone who thinks you can't succeed.

From anything that brings you sadness or fear.

From people you can never fully satisfy.

From anything unhappy.

Running.

To a place where you can be free.

To a place where judgments aren't made.

Toward comfort and joy.

To anywhere but here.

Running.

And I'll never stop.

— By Sabrina Villanueva Avalos

Readers can help families like Tammi and Sabrina. InnVision Shelter Network is hoping to raise $24,000 to fund transitional shelter and supportive services. A $100 donation provides one night or shelter and case management for a family. $50 can help pay for gas or public transportation while families look for housing, and $25 pays for school supplies.

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