Nancy Amaya Triumphs with a Little HELP from Her Friends

THE SECOND CHILD OF SIX, 23-year-old Nancy Amaya learned how to be responsible long before a child should have to. Her mother was a single parent who had trouble keeping a job; she relied heavily for support on the different fathers of her children. Nancy, who first met her biological father two years ago, and her older sister, Juana, were one year apart; brother Alexander was third in the lineup.

Nancy was 11 when her fourth sibling, Anthony, was born. Shortly after “Tony” came twin boys, Apollo and Zeus—and this was when Nancy and Juana were thrust into high gear in the roles of parent, caregiver, and babysitter.

Nancy’s mom forced her girls to the door or phone when the landlord and creditors called. They were instructed to lie and say she wasn’t there—something Nancy found particularly distasteful. Whether for mom’s latest job or her inability to pay the rent, the family moved a lot, rotating from small one bedroom to motel room to tiny studio.

Nancy and Juana pretty much raised their younger siblings. They were in charge of feeding, toilet training, discipline and entertainment, and not in equal measure—Nancy got the short end. Her mother would not pay for the cleats, bats, and gloves Nancy needed to participate in sports—she complained that Nancy wouldn’t be available to babysit, so Nancy’s friends gave her what she needed.

Nancy endured verbal abuse. Her mom never uttered the words I love you; hugs were reserved for the boys. And Nancy had no clue that their situation was unusual or unhealthy, “I thought that’s how all families were,” she says. Even so, she knew she didn’t want to end up like her mom and found it easy to stick to the straight and narrow. When asked how, she says, “Others depended on me.” Once there was no money to pay a babysitter for young Tony, so fifth-grader Nancy was taken out of school at lunch time to perform the task.

Later Nancy discerned that high school was her ticket out of domestic serfdom, and she was determined not to let the family’s transience blow her chances for an education. She set her sights on a magnet program because it would send a bus to pick her up wherever in town she might be living.

Nancy loved being at school because it wasn’t home, and she did well; not surprisingly, she hated summer break. She even enjoyed detention for the same reason; she would get into trouble for talking, or responding, to the many kids who engaged her. One teacher used to say, “If I put you in a room with Chinese students, you’d still find a way to communicate!”

Nancy’s good middle-school grades earned her a place at Desert Pines Academy of Information Technology. There she did well, made lots of friends, and took up soccer and softball (more time at school). In junior year when their mother kicked Juana out of the house for coming in late, Nancy had to pick up the household slack. Her first boyfriend, the only person who ever showed her any affection, eventually broke it off because she was tethered to home.

When depression set in and she was sleeping a lot, the uber-responsible Nancy felt guilty about neglecting her brothers. Then things turned ugly. A visiting Juana accused her of stealing five dollars and got physical. Mom piled on and ended up showing a bruised Nancy the door. Over the ensuing months Nancy reluctantly accepted offers from friends’ parents to stay with them, and there was a crisis around her mother’s refusal to sign her up for senior year.

Eventually her mom, just married, invited her back home. Nancy suspected her mother had selfish motives, but she missed her brothers and was exhausted, so she went. But it ended very badly when Nancy’s mother convinced herself that Nancy and her new husband were having an affair (they were not). She was asked to leave.

Because Nancy was beloved, teachers, counselors and friends stepped up to the plate. They gave her a suit for the swim team and arranged for school meals. She was treated to dinner out and one teacher’s mother bought her tickets to the prom. At this point, Nancy decided she would consider moving to a homeless shelter, and the Desert Pines staff recommended HELP of Southern Nevada’s Shannon West Homeless Youth Center. Shannon West takes a holistic approach to guiding charges toward sustainable self-sufficiency with training to enhance their social and life skills and education and employment prospects.

Nancy had the emotional and logistical support of her teachers and offers to “come live with us.” She was self-conscious about her plight and feared being a laughingstock. Still, she saw the merits in the program—and since she did not smoke, do drugs, or have a criminal record, she was able to move in right away.

The transition was tough for Nancy in many ways. Kelly Robson, HELP’s Chief Social Services Officer, and Nancy’s case manager, Jovanna, took on the role of surrogate mothers—and Nancy says she could not have made it without them. When they arranged a high-school graduation party for her, Nancy was overcome with emotion—she’d never been celebrated in such a way. But they didn’t stop there.

When Nancy could get no cooperation from her mother to complete her college financial aid application, Miss Kelly applied to Shannon West for a grant that would help pay her college expenses at Community College of Southern Nevada. Some of the money for this came from a car-wash fundraiser sponsored by PT’s Pubs. At every turn, Nancy was bowled over by people’s generosity.

Nancy lived at Shannon West for two years while she attended college. When she landed a cashier’s job at Border’s she felt ready to move out. At that point, Miss Kelly enrolled Nancy in another HELP program designed to encourage “graduates” to save money with a matching funds incentive and rent subsidy. Miss Kelly helped Nancy get an apartment.

When Nancy left Border’s for a job at Sephora, her new higher salary made her ineligible for money from HELP. She spent three years at Sephora, and has recently moved on to a new opportunity at Urban Decay Cosmetics. By any measure, it looks like HELP can say that its “Nancy Amaya” mission has been accomplished.

Previously published in diamondcake. Updated by smallTALK. Archived for Nancy Amaya.