TAMPA — The social worker wasn't sure what to think when she first met Bernadine Tejeda this past summer.
Tejeda, a 37-year-old mother of three, had been in and out of almost a dozen shelters all over Florida and Georgia since the first time she had come to Metropolitan Ministries for help 12 years earlier.
In some ways, Tejeda was like most of Nikki Counce's clients who need help finding housing. She was caught in a cycle of homelessness. It started, she says, with a broken-down car and grew worse with every job layoff, unexpected bill or bout of her husband's erratic behavior.
Tejeda was different, though. The binder of papers she brought to her first meeting with Counce was proof of that.
Inside was a script for a play called Broken Journey, about women and domestic abuse. There was also a workbook for women in bad situations.
Tejeda had written both, and also talked of ambitious plans to hold an outdoor job fair for people like her.
"She already had the whole (workbook) program done, the play done, all those connections," Counce said. "I was just concerned with getting her housed. I said, 'We'll come back to that.' "
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Growing up in Miami, Tejeda lived in an environment where goals for success were modest: Stay out of trouble, don't get pregnant. Still, she made good grades and even earned a scholarship to a community college. But she couldn't afford the books not covered in the scholarship, and says no one told her about financial aid. So she got a low-paying job and rented a furnished studio. A few years later, she ran into an old high school friend.
His mother had died and he told her he'd been mistreated by family members, she said. Her heart went out to him; she invited him to live with her. Two years later, when Bernadine was 22, they married and had a baby girl.
The next 14 years were a series of job losses, money struggles, short-term leases and extended-stay hotels. Having two more children brought joy, but didn't help the couple's financial picture.
Somewhere along the way, Bernadine says, her husband began to lose his mind, convinced that the government and his wife were conspiring against him. He became violent.
She left him two years ago and went to a women's shelter in Georgia. Once she and her three children — now 13, 11 and 6 — were safe and in a stable place, Bernadine relaxed. She got a job. Then she fell into a deep depression, feeling listless and unmotivated. She prayed about it one night, then rolled out of bed the next morning. It took her all day, but she finally completed a resume.
"Looking at it, I thought, 'I did it,' " Tejeda said. "That felt good."
She decided to keep going. Within days, she had written a workbook for abused women and an entire play about a woman with an abusive husband.
"The message is, 'Get out,' " she said.
Tejeda and her children eventually moved back to Tampa, and she once again found herself needing help from Metropolitan Ministries. She called and set up a meeting with Counce.
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The social worker was taken aback by Tejeda's dreams of producing a play and helping others with her outdoor resource fair idea. Having seen her share of people in tough situations who didn't quite grasp reality, she wondered if Tejeda might be a little manic.
Soon, she saw Tejeda as someone who is energetic, ambitious and willing to work hard to succeed.
"She's just an example of 'you do what you have to do,' " Counce said.
Metropolitan Ministries helped Tejeda find a place to live through its Rapid Re-Housing pilot program, for people who have jobs but need help with necessities and finding an affordable home.
Tejeda also completed what should have been a four-month course in less than two, so she would be certified to produce her own shows on Tampa's public access channel. She's currently working on shows called A Style and People, Power and Politics, where she directs and occasionally interviews people on camera.
She has a friend involved in theater who helps her learn how to produce a play. She talks to people about her outdoor homeless resource event every chance she gets.
She's working at a call center for Sable Park's Bisk Education, but still lives paycheck to paycheck. And someone recently broke into her small University area apartment and stole her kids' TV and video games. (They have since moved to a safer place.)
She's not discouraged, however. Tejeda has reached a turning point in her head, if nothing else.
"I've learned not to give up and don't accept defeat," she said.
She is determined to meet her goals, including the most important one, the promise to her kids:
"When they eventually grow up and leave home," she said, "I want them to leave an actual home."
Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3431.