In honor of Mother’s Day, we are sharing the story of Milwaukee native Donnalisa Guzman, who has overcome countless hurdles to land a rewarding, living-wage job and peace of mind. A LISC FOC helped her make it happen.
Any mother knows that the phrase “working mother” is redundant. But for Donnalisa Guzman, a single mother of seven children between the ages of 4 months and 13, it’s also a badge hard won, many times over.
At 32, Guzman, a native of Milwaukee and a member of the Ojibwa Nation, has already traveled a winding and sometimes painful road: an abusive boyfriend compelled her to drop out of high school; in her 20s, she became a widow. But in 2012, she began a long-term relationship with Journey House, a LISC partner that offers career and financial coaching through its Financial Opportunity Center (FOC). Journey House helped Guzman, who has held jobs since the age of 12, hone her skills and channel her drive into a solid career-path that has begun to pay off, in more ways than one. In stabilizing her own life, she is paving a smoother path for her children, too.
For years, Guzman did her best to support her growing family with a series of minimum wage jobs, usually in fast food service and retail, in addition to payments from Wisconsin’s W2 program, which provides temporary cash assistance for low-income parents when they’re out of work. Between that minimal income and family upheavals, she found herself moving her children from place to place, living with relatives and friends, or in short term apartments. Two of those rentals caught fire as a result of faulty wiring and heating, forcing the family to move again.
“We’ve had periods where we lived better off than other times,” said Guzman. “We have gone without some regular comforts, yet we somehow managed to have the bare essentials. We have used coolers or single burners to compensate for the lack of appliances and my children would go long periods of time with worn-out shoes.” The family also has had to do make do without a car.
Through the W2 program, Guzman was placed in jobs at thrift stores, intended to be experience-building stepping-stones to other work. But while she learned what she could, she knew they were not enough to build the kind of resume she wanted. Finally, she found a placement with Journey House, working 20 hours a week in the nonprofit Neighborhood Ambassadors program, which exposes clients to a range of jobs and training, from cleaning to keyboarding to event planning.
Right away, Guzman began taking advantage of all that Journey House had to offer, including financial coaching and budgeting help, tax preparation services and career coaching—all part of the Financial Opportunity Center. At the same time, she volunteered to work with other women, helping with resume writing and interview skills (she’s always had a way with words, she’s been told) and guiding them in how to dress professionally. After taking on two good paying but late-night, seasonal jobs in promotions, “I knew it was time for a ‘big girl’ job,” she said. “I’d gotten my GED, and I knew I could pull all the pieces together and build a career.”
Melissa Jerke, a career coach and director of the FOC at Journey House, helped Guzman connect with a large financial services firm that was hiring. “It was out of her comfort zone, but she’s a quick learner, and she’s got that grit and that drive,” says Jerke. In her first days on the job, Guzman hid the tattoos on her hands with her shirtsleeves, but a supervisor at the firm with a personal connection to Journey House offered to mentor her, and soon she felt at home. Two years later, Guzman’s position has evolved, earning her more responsibility and money, in addition to health insurance for her family, a 401k plan, and room for continued advancement.
Guzman also rented an apartment near several members of her large, close-knit family, who help out with childcare and errands. She has the added support of food stamps and daycare subsidies for her youngest children, but she’s no longer eligible for much assistance because of her gross income, even though her wages are garnished to cover student loans and other obligations. But as services decrease, she says, she can see a silver lining: “It’s like a weaning towards complete self-sufficiency.”
Journey House, she says, is still an important part of her life—she just referred a friend there, who secured a welding job with full benefits and on-the-job training, and her son will enroll in the youth football program soon. “Donnalisa is great example of how this can go two ways,” said Jerke. “She has benefitted from the program, and now she’s referring other people and coming in to volunteer.”
When she’s not at work, Guzman and her children like to cook out and go to the park, weather permitting, or do projects together like painting and making dream catchers. “Sometimes I look at them and think, ‘they’re not going to want to do this forever,’” she said. “I have to treasure it for now.” Spoken like a true working mother.