Jennifer James is a woman of strong faith, which she said has been carved over the years by surviving "trials and tribulations."
But in 2021 even she was unsure when she felt God calling her to relocate from Fort Benning, Ga., to Jacksonville, which she had only visited a few times years earlier.
Why? What did he want from her?
She made the move, a divorced, single mother in a new city. A year later, after encountering more hardships — at one point she was jobless, on the brink of homelessness and out of money — she still has no idea why she's in Jacksonville.
But a few well-timed "miracles" that happened along the way convinced her she did the right thing. Old paychecks turned up from a job long done, a friend sent her a financial gift, a local nonprofit helped her get a job in the field of her choosing.
"My life has been a story," she said, noting that people with a weaker faith than hers may not believe the miracles. "This is one for the books."
After promising move, 'I was in a dark place'
This Christmas, James, 44, and her three daughters, ages 17, 20 and 22, will be away from home. They will be reconnecting with their father, and she will be visiting her siblings. She will be celebrating the triumph over the past year and the lessons she learned.
"I now totally understand the greatest gift," she said.
It's life. Family, love, hope and joy.
But not so long ago James was not feeling the hope and joy.
Lutheran Social Services impact: Jacksonville nonprofit has a message for low-income families: ´Wegotchu`
Her move to Jacksonville started out with promise. She found a job and a place to live. But she was quickly let go at work and, having depleted her finances by that time, she and her daughters faced possible homelessness.
"Now I was in a dark place I had never been. Without a job, a single mother and bills including rent that was overwhelming," James said. "I was praying for help and holding on to my faith with all I had."
Her salvation came in an email. Her daughter's school was to host a resource fair that included a Lutheran Social Services of Northeast Florida program called Steps 2 Success that provides financial and career coaching. She attended and enrolled right away.
James was in tears when she first met Program Director Michelle Hughes at the resource fair.
"She told me that she was trying to find a job, but she felt like she kept hitting a brick wall," Hughes said. "She was distraught and at her wit’s end. I could tell that not being able to make ends meet as a single mother, that she needed a job soon or things could get worse for her."
Individualized approach from Steps 2 Success
The goal of Steps 2 Success is to help clients increase their monthly net income through employment for the jobless or promotions or new jobs for clients whose wages or hours are insufficient to meet their monthly expenses, according to Hughes. The program also helps them access benefits, such as SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, as well as utility assistance and children’s health insurance.
Clients must be at least 18 years or older, unemployed or underemployed and focused on career, education and financial goals, she said. They can spend up to five years in the program.
"There really isn’t a typical client and that’s why one-on-one coaching is so important," Hughes said. "Everyone who comes to our program has their own story, their own past, their own goals, their own hopes for the future. Our services are not 'one size fits all' and that’s what sets it apart from so many others."
Step 2 Success clients do share the goal of increasing their net income, she said, "but there are as many ways to achieve that as there are clients. And I think this individualized approach is why we are so successful."
Last year, the average credit score increase for clients was 56 points. The average net income increase was $948 a month. "That kind of impact is life-changing," Hughes said.
James was determined to achieve that life change.
"Within a week, she was in our office meeting with her coaches," Hughes said. "She brought her resume and after a few modifications, her career coach gave her a few job leads based on her work history and interests and they began her employment search."
James said her financial coach "inspired me and educated me on the how, why and what to help on my journey. This was something I always wanted but just did not know how, or where to start. My career coach was the kindest most warm-hearted person. He walked with me throughout this journey."
Still, the journey was tough. She was jobless for five months, during which her lease was set to expire and the new rent increased to $2,400 a month. She prayed and prayed.
"I was in search for a house with no job and looked like no place to stay with my girls," she said. "I continued to hold on to my faith and hope … I refused to give up on my dream of having a house. It seemed impossible without a job or money."
'Hope does not disappoint'
In September, the dark skies parted. The out-of-state company that employed her early on in Jacksonville still had her on the payroll. A friend told her that God had prompted her to save money for someone in need and she later realized James was that person. Combined, they made up the down payment she needed for a house.
In October, she got a job as a travel coordinator for LSI Training Center at Cecil Airport — she was once a travel assistant — working for a "great company" and earning the $20-an-hour salary she sought.
James has a bit of advice for other people who find themselves in similar dire situations.
"I learned to celebrate in our tribulations, knowing that tribulations bring about perseverance," she said, "and perseverance proven character and proven character brings about hope. And this hope does not disappoint. … It will not fail you."
Hughes said watching such success stories is the best part of her job.
"I love seeing people experience a 'win' in their life after they have felt defeated," she said. "My goal is to assist people in reaching their full potential."
She remembers encouraging James early on in the process.
"My words to her were the sun will shine again in her life. I prayed with her and assured her that God will turn everything around for her good," she said. "Watching Jennifer smile again and achieve success is like a breath of fresh air."
LUTHERAN SOCIAL SERVICES OF NORTH FLORIDA
The nonprofit offers five community outreach programs: Refugee Services, AIDS Care and Education, the Nourishment Network food bank and Representative Payee Services, which which helps people receiving Social Security and disability entitlements manage their fiscal affairs. To donate, seek services or get more information, contact Lutheran Social Services at 615 Philips Highway, Jacksonville 32207; (904) 448-5995; or email@example.com or go to lssjax.org.
STEPS 2 SUCCESS
The LSS career and financial coaching program, a partnership with LISC Jacksonville, the United Way of Northeast Florida and the Siemer Institute, is at 1601 Kings Road in Jacksonville. Clients meet with coaches on site and virtually. To seek services or get more information, contact Stewart Miller at (904) 730-8256, email Steps2Success@lssjax.org or go to lssjax.org/programs/financial-security.