Barbara Hutchison has never been lower.
“I live in a homeless shelter. I have kidney stones. I gave up my two cats. I can hardly move my elbows with this rheumatoid arthritis. I can’t pay for my car. I need an operation on my left foot. My friend Tanisha died,” says the slight 53-year-old, who is also living under a deadline to move out of that shelter.
Still, Barbara manages a smile when she talks about fulfilling her lifelong dream: helping people with learning disabilities.
“Being able to help others would change my life,” said Barbara, who works about 25 hours a week as a cashier at The Arc, a county-wide, non-profit agency that provides programming for children and adults with disabilities.
But in recent years, Barbara has become the one who needs help — a position she struggles with after overcoming so many challenges on her own.
Barbara was diagnosed as bipolar in 1997. A five-year marriage in Arizona that she describes as a “a volatile, abusive relationship” ended in 2009 in divorce. She moved to Boynton Beach in 2011.
After another abusive relationship, she lived in safe houses in Delray Beach and Broward County for several years.
Her life stabilized with a job at Publix in the company’s Wellington and West Palm Beach stores which she held for six years until she lost her job due to COVID-19 in 2020.
”Everything went wrong at once,” she said.
Living in the car, then a homeless shelter, where to next?
The building with the one-bedroom apartment she rented for two years for $850 a month in West Palm Beach was sold in June. Barbara and her cats, Miss Bell and Miss Thing, were given 30 days to leave. She didn’t have the money to pay first, last and the security deposit for a new apartment.
“I lived in my 2016 Hyundai Elantra. I gave Miss Bell and Miss Thing to a friend. I bought sandwiches in convenience stores. Washed up in laundromats. For hours in libraries I sat. From my car, I saw people sleeping on the ground. I saw horrific, terrible things. Just crying, that’s how I spent so many nights,” she said, blinking back tears.
In September, Barbara found a spot in the West Palm Beach homeless shelter, but the shelter limits a person's stay and Barbara's time is running out. At the time this story was published that deadline was Nov. 30.
She's scraping to get by. She started working at The Arc in May. It's part-time work. She's found some joy working in the organization's cafeteria, but also more sadness, when in October the friend she made there, Tanisha, died of a heart attack at age 28.
“We worked together side-by-side. She was amazing. We would have wonderful talks together. She had her whole life ahead of her,” Barbara said.
A healthy Barbara, relieved of debilitating aches and ailments, could help counsel clients at The Arc, said Director of Rehabilitation Wendy Sparapani.
“She loves it here. She always comes to work with a smile. She has a huge heart. I can see it when she works with our clients, despite her pain,” said Sparapani.
Barbara needs more than one surgery, but can't stop working
Barbara needs to take time off to undergo several surgeries, including on her foot, to replace both elbows and to address kidney stones. But as it stands she can't afford to stop working.
Right now she earns minimum wage and collects $972 a month in Social Security benefits. Arc officials say she takes on afternoon shifts at their production workshops to earn extra income. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal assistance program once known as "food stamps," helps her pay for groceries.
Donations would be life changing for her, Sparapani said. She could find and pay for housing and cover living costs, including food, utilities and car expenses, and then take care of her pressing medical issues.
“Barbara is an inspiration,” Sparapani said.
The Arc officials figure it will take about $30,000 to get Barbara back on her feet — medically and financially. Not only would that give The Arc a valued counselor, but it would allow Barbara to resume a more normal life.
She could move into her own home. Get her cats back from her friend. Resume cooking Mexican meals — her favorite. Walk and move her arms without pain. No more indescribable agony from kidney stones.
“I’m floating right now. I’m spinning. I’m lost,” said Barbara. “I want to stop. I have goals. I’m determined to reach them.”
Barbara Hutchison's Wish
After putting in six years at Publix, Barbara Hutchison lost her job during the COVID-19 pandemic. Donations will help her pay for medical care including operations on her elbows and left foot, as well as removal of kidney stones on her left side. She needs bipolar medications. She also needs to pay for first, last and security deposits to move into an apartment. Financial assistance is needed to pay for her car and auto insurance, as well as food and utilities while she recovers from medical procedures.
Nominated by: The Arc of Palm Beach County, Riviera Beach
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Charity: West Palm Beach woman lost job, health during COVID