From Section 8 to Single Mother of Year

Published 8:38 pm Thursday, November 19, 2009

Just six years ago, Deirdre Sawyer had two young sons and was living in Section 8 housing, with no plan for escape.

Now, not only does Sawyer own her home, but she also received the Single Mother of the Year award from the Still Hope Foundation, based in Smithfield.

“It was a total surprise,” said Sawyer, during a break from her job at the Salvation Army office on Bank Street. “I was so excited.”

Sawyer’s journey to self-sufficiency began in 2003, when she met Phyllis Harrison, who works at the Suffolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Harrison helped motivate Sawyer to improve her living situation, and helped her start the Family Self Sufficiency Program in 2003.

The SRHA Family Self Sufficiency Program requires participants to sign a five-year contract and to develop goals, then receive counseling on the supportive services they can use to help reach their goals. Participation in the program is strictly voluntary.

The program participants have access to an escrow account. When their income increases, the difference between their initial income and current income is placed in the escrow account, and the entire account is paid out to the family at the completion of the contract.

Sawyer’s goals were to obtain a full-time job, improve her credit and become a homeowner. She landed a job at the Salvation Army first as a receptionist, then as an assistant social worker. She then was able to put the increase in income into the escrow account to work toward her goal of homeownership.

When Sawyer heard about the Habitat for Humanity Builders’ Blitz in the Huntersville section of Suffolk last year, she applied, despite having been turned down by Habitat for Humanity once before.

Sawyer got accepted for a house, on the condition of paying off some last remaining debts. The escrow account held enough money to not only pay for her house, but also to pay for a car.

“It opened up more opportunities for me to grow,” Sawyer said of the experience. “I had been struggling by myself for the longest time, and I finally got a break.”

Sawyer’s hard work and dedication prompted Harrison to nominate her for the Dorian Single Mother of the Year award. The award is given each year by the Still Hope Foundation. The “Dorian” portion of the name comes from a combination of the first names of the two founders’ mothers (Dorothy and Marian).

“As a result of hard work, dedication, and an unwaning spirit of hope, Ms. Sawyer was able to seize every opportunity presented to her,” Harrison wrote in the nomination letter. “Since reaching her FSS goals, she has continued to set and obtain new goals in her life. She is committing the same fervor and determination to obtaining these goals as she did her first goals.”

Sawyer received the award recently in a ceremony at the Norfolk Waterside Marriott. Her future goals include pursuing a degree in social work.

“They were so excited,” Sawyer said of her sons, ages 11 and 14. “We have worked hard for this.”

Sawyer said she thinks the SRHA program helped her get on her feet.

“It was just such a blessing,” Sawyer said. “FSS is a really good program.”