Rising out of homelessness has been such a relief for Darcia Bell that she lights up when she talks about the new receptionist job she’s held for five months, the apartment lease she renewed in January, and the car she just purchased.
But a special kind of awe is reserved for her daughter’s achievements since the family moved to Madison from Chicago and into permanent housing five months later.
“The change was unbelievable. She went up two or three grade levels in reading and math,” Bell, 32, said Sunday before she was recognized at an event to celebrate the success stories of the local homeless organization The Road Home Dane County.
Almost 250 people attended the “family reunion” at the Warner Park Community Center. Attendees included volunteers, donors, staff and about 70 families who have been helped.
Not only is her daughter succeeding academically, but she started playing violin in fifth grade and trombone in sixth, Bell said, her eyes gleaming.
“It was a struggle, but because of help from the Salvation Army and The Road Home, a lot of the stress was taken off. It’s led us to the great place we live.”
The Road Home Dane County started 15 years ago as the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a name it still retains for its shelter program.
The organization gradually expanded beyond its emergency shelter function, and in 2009 it changed its name to reflect its broader range of services, said Peggy Halloran, The Road Home’s development director.
The Road Home works only with families with children, and the “Families Moving Forward” event recognized families who have stayed in stable housing for a year or longer. The event also celebrated employment and educational successes.
At the event, The Road Home distributed 175 backpacks full of school supplies to elementary, middle and high school students. The giveaway was part of a collaboration with United Way’s Days of Caring.
“It’s an opportunity to focus on the importance of education and having children prepared,” Halloran said.
The Road Home’s executive director, Kristin Rucinski, 31, started in the organization nine years ago as a student intern, got a master’s degree in social work, became a case manager, and now leads the organization.
“It’s cliché,” Rucinski said, “but housing is the answer to homelessness, and we don’t have enough affordable housing in Dane County.”
The vacancy rate in Madison is about 2 percent right now, which means there’s not a lot of available housing. And what is available isn’t in a price range The Road Home families can afford, she said.
The average two-bedroom apartment goes for $900, and even though most of the families served by The Road Home work, they can’t afford to put all of their take-home pay into rent, Rucinski said.
Meanwhile, Bell, who overcame years of homelessness through The Road Home, loves her job as a receptionist for the Salvation Army and said her fiancé, Jukoda Roosevelt, 30, feels similarly about his job building water heaters for Bock Water Heaters, where he’s worked for almost two years.
“Everything is literally perfect for us,” she said.