New Perspective Leads to Hope and Healing

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“I didn’t care anymore. I felt worthless,” said Bea, who sustained serious, life-altering injuries after a car accident.  Bea was rushed to the hospital where she underwent hours of therapy to help stabilize a brain injury and cope with permanent vision loss.

“It was as if a dark cloud had settled over me and a deep fog was in my head,” she said. Things that were once routine like paying bills or cleaning the house became near impossible. “I could barely get out of bed in the morning without falling over in a fit of dizziness, let alone remember how to do every day things.”

The widow of a longtime U.S. Army intelligence officer, Bea found help through Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS) Military and Veteran Services. The broad range of services are aimed at empowering military members, Veterans and their family to find the treatment and support they need to improve their quality of life and find stability.

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Finding the Key to Financial Success

Every morning, Ann counts the blessings she’s received as a wife, mother and a director at a long-term care facility in Brainerd. The job she loves does not pay much, but it always covered her family’s needs. Then, when unexpected death shook Ann’s family, she was suddenly unable to pay her bills on time, most notably on a $10,000 student loan she took out more than 20 years ago.

Always the responsible borrower, she immediately called her student loan servicer to discuss alternative repayment plans.  But, instead of helpful advice she received some unsettling news. On top of the payments she still had to make, her current interest balance was $24,000 – nearly twice as much as the original loan.

“I was in complete disbelief,” Ann said. “I was diligently making payments and thought I was making progress, only to find out I was going backwards instead of forward. It was devastating.”

Thinking of her family first, Ann was determined to find a way to redirect her pathway to financial stability. First, she had to understand what caused the backlog of loan payments and how she could reduce the pileup of bills, and her stress.  The search for answers led her to Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS of MN), where she found expert help from certified financial counselors.

“The minute we started talking, I felt like I wasn’t walking through the weeds alone anymore,” Ann said. “Finally, someone more knowledgeable was going to guide me through what happened and help figure out my options so that I could make the best decisions for my family and me.”

Together, Ann and her counselor, Katie, pored over her payment history, finding that with monthly payments of nearly two hundred dollars, her principal balance was reduced only slightly. In fact, her balance was getting bigger, not smaller. Ann’s shock grew after learning that in order to pay off her loan completely in less than ten years, she would have to double her current monthly payments.

“It felt like a situation that would get worse before it got better,” Ann said. “But Katie showed me some things to do that would put me in the right direction and make sure I kept moving upward.”

The key to Ann’s success, Katie said, is rearranging her budget to make room for her new repayment plan.  They discussed changes to her spending habits, including reducing non-necessities like eating at restaurants or hitting the coffee shop. They also talked about small ways to make her income grow, like saving whatever she can afford, even five dollars a month, and setting it aside in a separate saving account.

“All of these are small changes, but there is no doubt they will make a big difference in Ann’s ability to reach her goal of paying off her loan in under 10 years,” said Katie Eastman, Financial Counselor with LSS of MN. “She left our appointment equipped with more knowledge and the tools she needs to succeed.”

Today, Ann is staying the course to meet her goal, and is once again thankful for where she is in life. “Had I not come in for an appointment at LSS, who knows how much more the balance on my loan would have increased without being aware. I am so grateful for the help I received in managing my finances. I’m not so worried for my family’s future anymore.”

If you, or someone you know, is facing student loan debt, it is a good idea to meet with a student loan counselor to create an action plan like Ann did. LSS financial counselors can help with consolidation, determining the best repayment option, if you’re eligible for loan forgiveness and avoiding default. For more information, call 888-577-2227 to schedule a free phone, Skype, or in-person student loan repayment counseling session.

Hope and healing after war

veteran-flag-sept2016-sizedTodd Kuikka’s voice is clear, calm and confident. A perfect reflection of life today, he says. “I never would have imagined my life could be this good, after it had been so bad.” His story is not an anomaly, and like many war Veterans, Todd faced a difficult struggle once returning to civilian life after multiple tours of duty. Overseas, he spent day after day in high-stress situations dismantling explosive devices and making sure fellow soldiers returned from missions alive.

“I loved my job and was proud to serve my country, but it was intense,” he shared.

His wartime experiences left crippling imprints on his soul and in his mind. Following honorable retirement from the military, he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It was challenging to go out in public, where the smallest noise would trigger memories and transport him back to a catastrophic environment where he saw and heard things most people wouldn’t comprehend. He was plagued with recurring flashbacks and nightmares, making it difficult to find peaceful sleep. Struggles with depression grew.

Isolation was his defense against his demons, and soon he added alcohol as a shield from the darkness his life had become. It didn’t take long before his self-medication began to erode the tight-knit dynamic of his family.

Todd and his family found renewed hope in Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS of MN) where therapists supported him and his family as he re-integrated into civilian life.  Together, they reopened lines of communication and rebuilt their foundation.

“I am so thankful places like LSS of MN exist for people like my family and me. We were able to get to a place where we weren’t afraid to talk about the issues bothering us,” he said. “We reconnected emotionally and spiritually.”

Now, his priorities are nurturing his mental health and enjoying each day with family. They’ve also utilized more community resources, including LSS Financial Counseling. Greater control of their finances has afforded them freedom to focus on the future.

Last February, Todd published a book, Veteran Field Manual: Civilian Life 1-1, about learning to accept and cope with PTSD. “It’s been such a therapeutic and cathartic venue for me,” he said. It’s also been rewarding to experience the impact the book has had on the Veteran community worldwide. Todd has received notes from soldiers as far as Germany, Romania and the UK, thanking him. “It’s helped me to help other people.”

He’s also helping himself heal by continuing to explore his love of art and design. Alongside his wife, Erika, he owns and operates Loon House Designs and Concepts, a small mom ‘n pop shop. Business is good, but slow, just how he likes it. A manageable workload grants more time to focus on maintaining his stability and health.“I take one day at a time. Recovery from something as traumatic as war is never finished,” he said. “There’s always work to be done.” He journals and logs everything, including his sleep patterns. It can be a lot of work, but it pays off.  He has his sobriety, his health and his family. “There isn’t much more I could ask for. I’m happy.”

Safety and Stability Leads to Success

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When Gecora and her family moved from Chicago to Minnesota, she was excited to start somewhere new. After her father’s growing struggles with addiction led Gecora’s family to homelessness, the excitement she felt turned to disappointment and fear. “I had no idea what was going to happen to us,” she said. Gecora, who was trying to finish high school and get to college, did what she could to help. But a part-time job wasn’t enough. “A lot of the money I earned, my father used to buy his drugs,” she said.

Gecora knew that the longer she stayed in an unsafe, unhealthy environment, the more she was jeopardizing any chance to succeed. She made the decision to leave her family and try to make it on her own. “I was scared, but anything else had to be better than where I was,” she said.

After spending a few nights riding the bus and wandering Minneapolis’ streets alone, Gecora learned of LSS Safe House, an emergency shelter for youth ages 16 to 20-years-old. Last year, LSS of MN metro housing programs for youth – Rezek House, LifeHaven, Safe House and the Transitional Living project – served 210 young people and their children.

“Our work is as unique as the kids we see come through our doors,” said Monica Jones, program coordinator for LSS Youth and Family Services. “They’ve each been through something different, but their need for safety and stability connects them. We make sure they know that what they’ve experienced isn’t their fault, that they are capable of turning their lives around, and that we will walk beside them every step of the way.”

When she moved into the family-style home on a quiet St. Paul street, Gecora finally had the unconditional support and guaranteed safety she needed to get back on track in school. “School was a way to get away from the real world,” she said. “It was a place where I could find support from caring teachers and social workers and have fun with my friends – many of them didn’t even know I was homeless.”

Gecora stayed at Safe House for more than a month before she was approved for an apartment at LSS’ Rezek House, a two-year transitional housing program for youth experiencing homelessness. At first living alone was scary, but she adjusted well. She got a job and regained focus to excel in her classes. While LSS staff cheered her on, Gecora worked very hard and graduated high school with a 3.5 GPA. She is now looking forward to enrolling in college courses.

“Gecora and many other kids come to Rezek and Safe House because they don’t have anywhere else to go to find the security and safety necessary to their success,” said Monica Jones, program coordinator for LSS of MN. “Here, kids know they are loved and safe and they don’t need to worry about finding their next meal. They are able to plan their futures.”

Grandma Charlotte Loves Supporting Students

Grandma-Charlotte-KasorGrandma Charlotte Kasor came to the U.S. in the1990’s from Liberia. Wanting to stay busy and find new purpose in retirement, she became a Foster Grandparent ten years ago. She works primarily with kindergartners on literacy skills, and with those who need individualized attention. She also spends time helping children in the classroom so that the teacher can continue her lesson to the broader class.

Excell Academy for Higher Learning is a charter school in Brooklyn Park with a diverse group of children, 95% of whom are eligible for free and reduced lunches. They are doing whatever it takes to close the achievement gap and encourage students to reach and exceed academic and social expectations. Excell utilizes the talents of six LSS Foster Grandparents at least twenty hours per week. They provide academic, social and emotional support.

Excell Director Ms. Williams says that Foster Grandparents support teachers and allow them to do their work in closing the achievement gap. The volunteers give their hearts and knowledge to students, strengthening both their education skills and confidence.

There is something special about the intergenerational bond. Grandma Charlotte is truly a leader who creates lasting relationships with the students, staff and other volunteers. She says that being a Foster Grandma gives her a sense of accomplishment. She sees the difference she makes in the children’s reading and socializing.

It has also made a huge impact in her own life. She says, “So many seniors sit at home, watch TV, and make trips to the refrigerator. This allows me to stay busy and useful.

It keeps me young and moving! These children make me happy every day.”

Confidence Found in Experience

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“Kendall has always been a strong personality,” shared her proud father, Dana Theide, who easily recalls vivid memories of his exceptionally active and vocal child. “She was talking and telling stories as early as two-years-old,” he said.

Then, Dana and his wife, Karen, began to see a change. Their social, playful daughter was suddenly keeping to herself and having difficulties relating to and interacting with others. A variety of tests revealed Kendall had Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), closely mirroring Asperger’s Syndrome.

As Kendall grew older, community support played an integral part in her development and in keeping her family connected to helpful resources.

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