In a hot, cramped gym at Tarkanian Basketball Academy, Gloria Amaya claps wildly as her 15-year-old daughter, Sally, sinks a basket during a close holiday tournament game.
“That’s my girl!” shouts the 47-year-old, as she shifts a small oxygen tank on the bleachers. Her yelling is more like a loud whisper.
Then she coughs.
Amaya suffers from a disease that has scarred her lungs, a condition she was diagnosed with four years ago that cost her a job of 12 years and a dream home. Her breathing is so diminished at times that when she talks, she gasps for air as if she has run a marathon.
She might need a lung transplant if her condition continues to worsen. She doesn’t like to talk about that.
It wasn’t long ago the former claims adjuster made $50,000 annually. But as her health deteriorated, it became difficult to settle claims and work with attorneys by phone. At one point, an ambulance had to take her from work because she had trouble breathing. Her employer had to let her go.
The bills piled up. The house was foreclosed upon, and the family had to move to a rental home. Amaya was able to get $500 weekly in short-term disability checks, but they were always late. Back payments on rent and electricity swallowed up what little money was coming in. She’s still two months behind on car payments.
The family was facing eviction. Amaya said someone at her church gave her a phone number for Goodwill of Southern Nevada. Maybe they could help.
“After everything else going on, I was just waiting for the landlord to say I was getting evicted,” Amaya said. “Losing the house was stressful enough. At the last moment you just wait to see what hits you. You see Goodwill trucks everywhere. Not in a million years would I have thought I would need the benefits from that company. I had a stable job, but you never know what’s going to hit you.”
STILL HAVE SOMEPLACE TO SLEEP
Through the nonprofit, Amaya qualified for federal funding funneled by Clark County and United Way of Southern Nevada into the emergency food and shelter program, which provides local charitable groups with money to help qualified residents with temporary housing, rental or mortgage assistance, utility assistance, diapers, groceries and meals.
This year, Goodwill, Catholic Charities, HELP of Southern Nevada, Emergency Aid of Boulder City, the Jewish Federation of Las Vegas, The Salvation Army, United Labor Agency of Nevada and Lutheran Social Services divvied up about $1.4 million.
By proving she had an income from disability, Amaya received $1,180 in rental assistance, $300 for electricity and $160 for gas, enough to keep her afloat until next month, when she finally qualifies for long-term disability and a slight boost in her income, though it will never be the same as when she was working full time.
“There might not be any presents, but at least we have somewhere to sleep,” Amaya said. “There are people out there in worse situations. We’re behind, believe me, we’re very behind, but at least I know we’re getting something next month. But when I get that check, it’s owed already. It’s devastating.”
Clark County Commission Chairwoman Susan Brager said more people need help to keep the lights on, put food in the pantry and keep their homes.
“The more the economy goes down, the greater the need, and we have a responsibility to fulfill the needs of the people,” Brager said. “It’s absolutely critical to make sure people are not on the streets and have some food. … We give what we can, but we don’t have what we used to.”
assistance by the numbers
Debbie Harpster, community development manager with United Way, said hundreds of people in the valley are receiving mortgage assistance while thousands are getting food.
“We’ve assisted 500 people with rental assistance, 56 with utility assistance, and we’ve served almost 90,000 meals at various locations,” Harpster said.
The program was established through the Federal Emergency Management Agency 29 years ago and allows families or individuals only one month of assistance. Partnering with local nonprofits allows a combination of resources to extend the help further and assist families for more than one month if necessary.
“If we’re paying for somebody for their rent, they need to show that they will be able to maintain the rent after that assistance is given out,” Harpster said.
Because the federal budget was passed late last year, the funding went out very late, Harpster added. An extension to use the funds was granted through February.
“If you need assistance, the best resource is 211,” Harpster said of the statewide help line that puts people in touch with any basic need resources or health and human services programs.
SAVING THE PENNIES
For a moment, mother and daughter seem to block out the stress of financial troubles and health problems with all of their energies focused on basketball. Amaya’s knee nervously bounces up and down on the bleachers as the game heads into overtime.
Sally’s sneakers pound the court as she weaves her way through the defense with the ball. They’re purple Nikes. They match her Durango High School uniform.
“We saved all the pennies for those shoes,” Amaya said. “We almost didn’t have enough.”
The team lost by three points. Sally had six points and a headache. She hit her head on the court while diving for the ball and was warned by her coach to watch for a concussion.
Amaya gave her daughter some aspirin and a pep talk.
Despite the challenges in her life, Amaya remains the eternal optimist.
She’s a single mother who raised five children and is helping to spoil five grandchildren. She escaped a marriage plagued by domestic violence. She overcame suicidal thoughts, and she fully believes she will be able to bounce back from her financial hurdles.
“I still have dreams that one of these days I’m going to get my little house back. I don’t give up on those dreams,” Amaya said. “You have to want it. You have to believe it. I am proof that better things happen, not worse, regardless of how much is coming at you.
“If you believe, you will receive. I’m not giving up.”
Contact reporter Kristi Jourdan at kjourdan@review
journal.com or 702-455-4519.