FLORENCE — For Crystal Heggie, homelessness only applied to images she'd seen on television — until she found herself in that situation four months ago.
Heggie lived in the women's dorm of the Salvation Army for 46 days. During that time, she searched for, and found, a job, transportation and an apartment.
Salvation Army case worker Rose Rhodes describes Heggie as a woman to whom life had thrown a curve and needed some help and guidance to find her way.
The 32-year-old single mother of three, originally from Nashville, had been living in Florence with her boyfriend and the couple's 1- year-old son. Her two daughters live in Nashville during the school year with their father with whom Heggie shares joint legal and physical custody.
In July, it was evident the couple had seemingly insurmountable problems and a breakup followed, she said. Heggie had been hospitalized in Nashville for gallbladder surgery when she learned her boyfriend had filed for custody of their child. Shocked and distraught, Heggie recovered from her surgery at her brother's home in Nashville until she was well enough to travel to Florence.
"My brother brought me to Florence and said, ‘Where and how are you going to live?' " she recalled. "I told him I didn't know, but I wasn't giving up my child, that I would figure it out. It was on Aug. 29, the day before Gabriel's birthday and it tore my heart out knowing I wouldn't be with my baby on his birthday."
The Salvation Army agreed to house Heggie, but there were rules. A 6 a.m. wake-up time was followed by daylong job hunting before returning to the dorm at 5 p.m. for supper.
"I remember when I first walked in and saw other women there. It hit me. I was homeless. I'd never been homeless and here I was with no family around. All I knew was my son was here in Florence and I had to be with him," she said. "I had $600 that I'd saved from cleaning houses. That's was all in the world I had."
For Heggie, her first days were tough and long. She walked everywhere she went. Within 10 days she'd secured a job at Burger King, where she still works but at a different location. Within two weeks she'd used her money to buy a vehicle.
Rhodes recalls her first impression of Heggie as a go-getter, a woman who was down but hadn't lost hope.
"Her main goal was always to ultimately get her son back," Rhodes said. "She was the model client here, following every rule, doing everything she could to help herself."
Heggie said Rhodes, in many ways, was like the mother she had longed for. Heggie's mother left her and her two younger siblings when she was 12. She spent the next several years helping to raise them.
"I loved that there were rules at the Salvation Army, and I soaked in every word of advice Rose had for me because I've always wanted that," she said. "It was such a help to me to be there. I have a whole new appreciation for what the Salvation Army does, how they help people get their lives back together."
Heggie received help from others in the community as well, including the manager of her apartment complex who waived the security deposit so Heggie could afford it. Soon after she secured the apartment, she and Gabriel's father reunited, vowing to work out their differences and keep their family together. The Salvation Army helped with furniture vouchers for its thrift store.
"We both love Gabriel so much and we're avid church goers, so with the help of counseling through our church we're determined to make it work and marriage is in our near future," Heggie said.
Heggie said she also works as a sitter for the elderly and is seeking houses to clean. But in applying the financial management lessons she's learned, she said paying off bills has been her priority.
This year Gabriel's name was on the Salvation Army-sponsored Angel Tree and Heggie's thankful for any help she receives. She said her stress during this Christmas season is in not having money for gifts for her daughters, ages 11 and 15.
"I can totally understand for the first time how parents feel when they absolutely don't have a spare dime to buy Christmas gifts for their children," she said. "But I believe the Lord will provide for us. He's brought me this far."
The Salvation Army's Angel Tree gift distribution was Wednesday and Thursday. The TimeDaily will continue to collect donations for the Salvation Army's Empty Table Fund through the first week of January. All proceeds go directly to the Salvation Army and all money is used to help meet local needs during the holidays and throughout the winter months. This year's goal is $40,000. To contribute to the fund, bring donations to the TimesDaily office, 219 West Tennessee Street, Florence, or mail to TimesDaily, P.O. Box 797, Florence, AL 35631.