Editor’s note: For the 14th consecutive year, the Tampa Bay Times presents Holiday Hopes, a series profiling people in need and giving readers a chance to help. The Times will update readers about granted wishes in January.
HOLIDAY — Life was feeling pretty good in the summer of 2016 for Ryan Clarke and his fiance, Kristi Agnew. Clarke, 30, an Army veteran who served a year in Afghanistan, had a job as a well inspector in the Louisiana oil fields. Agnew, 31, was working as a preschool teacher.
The couple had four kids between them and were planning a wedding. Her two boys and their son lived with Clarke and Agnew. Clarke’s daughter lived with her mom and spent alternate weekends with her dad.
Then they were hit by a series of hard knocks that drove them to Florida and eventually to Metropolitan Ministries.
First came a flood that hit southern Louisiana after days of torrential rain in August of 2016, forcing the family to be evacuated by airboat in the middle of the night. Rising waters destroyed their belongings.
“I stood at the front door and saw water coming up the street from three directions,” Agnew said.
They did not have renters’ insurance, so living was bare bones when they relocated to an apartment made more expensive by a housing shortage
“It was just getting to the point that we could breathe again,” Clarke said. Then came another setback.
One morning while was getting their boys ready for school, Agnew called out that she couldn’t see.
After many doctor visits, neurologists discovered that spinal fluid was putting pressure on Kristie’s brain, she said. Clarke took six months of unpaid leave to take care of his fiance. He lost his job, and eventually the family was evicted.
Agnew was cleared to go back to work in January 2019, but her $9-an-hour salary wasn’t enough.
“Everyone in my family lost everything in the flood,” said Kristie. “There was no where we could go.”
Clarke called his mom, Maria Johnson, who lived in Trinity.
“I told her, ‘We’re out of money. We don’t know what to do,’” Clarke said.
Kristie and the two older boys, who were enrolled in school, moved in with her parents. Clarke got on a plane with their son, Christopher, and moved in with his mom.
“She was sleeping on a couch," Clarke said. "We were sleeping on the floor of my mom’s one-bedroom apartment.” Kristie followed Clarke to Florida in June, leaving her two sons with family, she said.
It was soon apparent that they could not all stay at Johnson’s home. There wasn’t enough room, Clarke said.
Then they found Metropolitan Ministries.
After touring a living facility in Holiday, and following an intake process that outlined goals and a path moving forward, Clarke and Agnew were approved for the program.
“I saw it as an opportunity to get back where we were,” Clarke said.
“I can’t tell you how hard it was, watching my kid get off the plane with a backpack and a baby and watching them move in here,” Johnson said. “But Metropolitan Ministries was able to get them the resources faster than we could, to get them on their feet."
Following advice from counselors, Clarke completed an apprenticeship program at Marchman Technical College.
“I was thinking about a job, but they told me I should think about a career," he said. “I had the skills, but that (schooling) made my resume even better.”
“When he first arrived, there were a lot of hurdles with his career and moving forward,” said Mary J. Vasquez, Clarke’s case manager. “He is very motivated and determined to succeed and be successful for himself, but also for his family. He has so much potential to take his story of where he came from and make progress in a different way."
That already has happened.
Clarke recently learned that he landed an entry-level position as a sheet metal mechanic at Pall Aerospace in New Port Richey.
“It wasn’t the job I applied for, but it’s a foot in the door,” he said, adding that the benefit package was especially appealing.
Agnew, who works at a local preschool, is enrolled in the child development program at Marchman, and hopes to become a preschool director.
Among their next steps is saving up to find a home of their own. Then they can bring the older boys to Florida.
The family video chats regularly and the boys seem to be doing well, Agnew said. But she wants them here.
“It might not be what we had," Clarke said, "but we’ll get there.”
The wish: Clarke and Agnew hope to reunite their family soon. “We would like to be able to furnish a home for our children to stay in, because we are going to have to do that all over again,” Clark said. “Until we do that, we won’t be able to bring the other kids down.”
To help or for information, call Metropolitan Ministries at (813) 209 or 1000 or go to www.metromin.org.