Message from ToyXplosion: We’re stepping away from the subject of toys today and talking about American families feeling the impact of some tough times. Since this blog focuses on families, we felt this was something our readers would be interested in.
Some of you know that me and my family reside in Austin, Texas. We moved back to my hometown a little over a year ago and are having so much fun living near family. We moved from Colorado after dealing with some very difficult times financially. My husband was in the real estate market and I had been let go from my well paying job. It literally felt like we woke up one day and had no income. Times were tough to say the least.
In April of 2011, we packed up our bags and moved to my hometown of Austin, Texas. Todd had no job lined up, but I was making a decent income from my blogging efforts. With some savings, our 3 kids, one dog and a big ‘ol moving truck, we packed up and headed south. A year later, things are going great. Todd has a fantastic job (thanks to my brother!) and my blogging is continuing to go well.
Long story short, we know what it means to fall on hard times. We know what it feels like to wake up and have that sinking feeling of having a family to support, but seeing no light at the end of the tunnel. We also know what it feels like to work hard and get back on track.
Yahoo! has a new weekly series titled ‘Remake America’ that follows the lives of real families as they strive to get back on track towards achieving “the American dream.” The reality series will offer a lens, through the eyes of real families, into the political issues at the forefront of the 2012 elections, including the impact of unemployment, healthcare, veteran affairs, and the housing market.
An Austin, Texas family was featured on the Yahoo! series and I had the chance to interview the mom, Starlight (goes by Star) Fonseca about their journey. Here’s a little background on the family. Please be sure to check out their Yahoo! page here.
Jose and Starlight
After moving across the country for a law school program, Starlight became sick and lost her scholarship. Without a strong credit score, she was not eligible for a student loan and has been forced to withdraw from school. Following numerous health concerns for both Starlight and her son, who has been diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome, the family is on the brink of homelessness with no income to pay for living expenses or health insurance.
Our Interview with Star Fonseca
Q: Give me a little background on your family’s choice to move to Austin for you to attend Law School.
When I returned to school in 2004, I figured that if I was going to do it, I may as well do the best I could. I graduated with a 4.0 and won a scholarship through the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation worth $50,000 per year for up to six years. For me, this was a full ride to law school. I had been accepted into eight of the top law schools in the country. We chose UT at Austin because we wanted the easiest adjustment for the children possible. We figured that after living in small town Nebraska, moving to New York or LA might be too hard on them!
Q: What was the hardest part about balancing school and a family?
The hardest part about balancing school and a family is watching my husband do all the things that I thought I would be the one doing. Don’t get me wrong. He does very well, but I enjoy taking care of my kids so much that it is hard to delegate sometimes. I want to be the one fixing their hair, studying their spelling words with them, and making them breakfast.
Q: Tell me a little about the health issues you’ve been dealing with that caused you to have to stop taking classes?
After we moved to Austin, we encountered obstacle after obstacle. First we all got swine flu (I know that isn’t the correct term, so you may want to correct that for me. I just can’t think of it right now!). That should’ve been a hint. Soon after that, my three nieces came to live with us, our son started having trouble in school (he has Asperger’s Syndrome), Jose and three of the kids were in a car accident, etc., etc., etc. After awhile, the stress of one thing after another started adding up and my adrenal gland just couldn’t keep up. Unfortunately, in 2005, I almost died from septicemia, and I have never fully recovered. Between the effects of that illness AND the adrenal fatigue syndrome, I was just exhausted. And always sick. I didn’t have time to get sick to begin with, much less to recoup after the illnesses. Trying to keep up with law school prevented me from getting the rest I needed and my body just couldn’t heal. I’d have another illness before I was over the first one. Then, of course, there was the added stress of knowing what the illnesses were doing to my class attendance and my grades. It was a cycle that I couldn’t break…but finals could. And did. My grades weren’t really that bad, but they weren’t scholar material.
Once my scholarship funding ceased, I figured I’d just have to get student loans. I wasn’t thrilled about it, but I figured that’s what most students did anyway, right? Not everyone gets a full ride! Unfortunately, there is a pervasive myth about student loans: that credit history doesn’t matter. If nothing else comes out of this Yahoo opportunity, I want to make sure that people know the truth about grad school loans before they end up in a similar situation. MANY people, especially non-traditional students, go back to school after realizing how hard it is to get a good paying job without an education. In the midst of learning that, credit scores suffer. I went back to school so I could make enough money to repair our past credit history and no one ever told me that because we didn’t have a qualifying credit score, I may not be eligible to finish my law degree. My health is NOT the reason I can’t take classes right now. For graduate school, the regular subsidized and unsubsidized loans (which are NOT credit based and which I am eligible for) are not enough. It’s too expensive, so there is another government student loan, the Grad PLUS loan. However, this loan is credit-based. And because my credit score isn’t high enough, I can’t get it. Ironically, our government trusted me with the $100K they’ve already let me take out in student loans, but not the $12,500 I needed to finish this semester. It doesn’t make any sense, but that’s how it is and people need to know before they end up where we are right now. I don’t feel this message has been made clear enough and people are assuming I’m not in law school because of my health, but that is just simply NOT TRUE. The government has blocked me from finishing my degree.
Q: How did Yahoo! end up hearing about your story?
As I said, it is very important to me that people are made aware of the realities of grad school. We are taught that if we are willing to put in the hard work and assume the debt, all of us are entitled to higher education. That is a LIE. I want everyone to know that because adults aren’t the only one suffering because of this myth. My children (and other non-traditional students’ children are also victims of this ridiculousness). I feel it is my responsibility to do all I can to spread this truth, so when I saw the casting call for Remake America, I filled out the application and told them what had happened to us. They, like most people, thought that student loans were available to anyone and couldn’t believe that I was 24 credits shy of a J.D., but being stopped from finishing.
Q: What has it been like now that your family is in the public eye?
Although most of the comments have been encouraging and positive, being in the public eye has been very, very hard for me. People watch a six-minute video and assume they know everything about our life. They assume they know why our kids are homeschooled, why my husband isn’t employed outside the home, why we have a large home, and why I’m having trouble at school. They also somehow feel that they must voice that opinion, and not just on Yahoo. They send me emails and blog comments telling me basically that we are having problems because we are lazy and stupid. That’s never fun. However, I try to stay focused on all the wonderful new people who have taken the time to offer us encouragement, and who have also been willing to buy soap from people they’ve never heard of before!
Q: Tell me about your Crazy Bunch soap business. How and why did you decide to make soap?
Over the last few years, we have become more and more aware of the synthetic chemicals in food and cosmetics. Once I researched all the ingredients in the conventional body washes, soaps, shampoos, etc., I knew that I could never again, in good conscience, use those products on my children. So, I decided to make my own. Once we started making it, and found out that it was actually fun, we decided to try out some different scent combinations. My husband is a trained chef, so he incorporated some of his food presentation knowledge. All this resulted in some wonderful smelling soap that looked like desserts! I posted the pictures on Facebook, more to show my family and friends how cool they looked than anything else, and the next thing you know, people started offering to buy them. So far, we have had 100% positive feedback on all our soaps, including all the orders that resulted from our Yahoo episode. I will say that the message behind why we are making the soap is much closer to our hearts than any monetary compensation from it, but I also know that we need a source of income. If we can do both through making this organic soap, that will be a dream come true. It really will.
Q: What have sales been like?
Sales were really great during the end of March and the first week of April. We ran a sale at the end of March to make sure we could make ends meet for the month. The first week of April was our Yahoo debut and those sales were really good, as well. But, things have definitely tapered off. We’ve had only three or four small orders this week. We appreciate every little bit, so please do not think we are not incredibly grateful for everyone’s support. People who send us messages saying they could only afford one bar, but wanted to support us any way they can are the ones who really brighten our days!
We’ve been looking at wholesaling, but we just don’t have the capital to get bar codes and the machinery necessary for increased output. We can’t afford to risk taking out a business loan, and we don’t have the necessary credit score anyway. (If I qualified for a loan, I’d use it to finish law school!!)
If you would’ve asked me last week, I would’ve said sales were sufficient, but now I know that they just aren’t where we need them to be if we want to stay in Austin. We’ve had to talk to my family back in Nebraska about coming home because we just can’t afford even our monthly basics (e.g. rent and utilities).
Q: What have you learned about owning your own business?
You have to believe in the message behind what you are doing. If not, you have done nothing but create another “job” that you will grow to resent. Owning your own business can be a chance to spend your entire life doing what you love and using that love to change the world. But you must, must, must know where to draw the line. On the other hand, you must be willing to put in a lot of hard work on details that seem too minute to matter. It’s just a day-by-day, case-by-case analysis. Is this worth it? Is this necessary? And why? There are already lots of people who make soap. Not just corporations, but people. And many of them make natural, organic soap. So why ours? Because we believe in using our product and profits to change the lives of so many people. And that’s what keeps us going everyday. If we were just doing this to make money, we would’ve given up already! You have to have a goal and you have to love that goal. For us, the goal is to educate people both on why organic products are so important and on how to make their own soap. We want to offer a choice to low-income families who are largely dependent on whatever they can find on sale at Walmart. We believe that is more important than any profit we may ever see and that’s what sustains us when it gets hard.
Q: So, what’s next for the family?
We honestly are not sure. The most important thing is to provide for our children. They must, must, must have a roof over their heads and a quality education. Right now, it seems that we may only be able to provide that for them by accepting that I have to stop going to law school and we have to go home to Nebraska. It is hard to admit that we have failed when it comes to the law school dream, but NOTHING is more important than our children. We would like to stay in Austin if the soap sales miraculously pick up within the next week, but most likely, our next steps include a change of venue.
As a family, we have always prioritized our faith and our values above any financial gain. Sometimes that puts us in positions that, from the outside looking in, may seem like an easy fix, but for us are quite difficult. For example, so many people have insisted that if we just put our kids back in public school and my husband finds a “regular” job, everything will be just fine. Basically, they are just missing the point! Not only will that not fix anything, it will actually cause more problems for us in the long run. Our situation is just so convoluted right now that it is hard to predict anything! So, we have to focus on the basics. Right now, to cover those basics, we may have to ask our family and friends for a little support. I have always struggled with pride, so it is very hard for me to do, but I think that may be the exact lesson God is trying to teach me.
Q: What advice would you give other families who are struggling to make ends meet?
**Know who you are, what you believe in, and where you are willing (and more importantly, not willing) to compromise.
**Know the difference between wants and needs.
**Appreciate every moment.
**Never believe that your family can come later after the work is done. You never know what might happen and they just might not be there when you finally “have time” for them!
**Sometimes living a life we love involves a lot of sacrifice, but we MUST do it. Right now, so many people in America believe that we “earn” the right to enjoy life by spending an arbitrary amount of time doing things we hate, but life is too short for that! That third car is just not worth it.
**The hardest one for me: sometimes, you are going to have to ask someone else for help. We can’t do it all alone. I’ve always been the strong one, the smart one, etc., so this has been soooo difficult for me. But, that is how we learn to appreciate each other. If we can do everything alone, there is no need for other people. What a lonely life that would be! Sometimes, you are going to have to swallow your pride. (No, it will NOT be fun!)
**Believe. If I had to sum it all up in one word, it would be that. Just believe. Even when it feels like you can do anything but, you must believe. Sometimes faith is all you have left, but if you really, truly believe, it will be enough.
Thank you Star for taking the time to chat with us!
Side note: The Fonseca’s are no longer selling their soap at this time.