A Story of Resilience – In Whitney’s Words

Real $tories podcast guest, Whitney, shares in her own words her and Russell’s financial journey that eventually led them to GreenPath.

Russell and I are high school sweethearts. We joke that we have raised each other and in a lot of ways it is true. We both come from single mom homes. Russell’s mom is very frugal and tight with funds but he spent more time with his great grandmother who would dote on him with whatever purchases he desired.

My mom had varying degrees of success and we would live large until funds ran out, more of a feast and famine cycle. We were both ready to leave home young and moved into an apartment together after my first semester of college. It was a rude awakening on a lot of fronts.

There was a point where Russell volunteered to do the shopping, I gave him the two-week worth of grocery money and he bought milk, cereal and cubed cheese. That was it! Looking back on the early days of our relationship, it felt like playing house while attending the best sleepover with my best friend.

Whitney And Russell Photo

I was offered an internship in Dallas and Russell was asked to help his friend out in San Marcos. I drove down to San Marcos so many weekends and eventually moved. It was this move that had me apply to the University of Texas at Austin and eventually graduate in 2011. I took the 7-year bachelor’s route, mainly because I changed majors and my social work hours did not transfer to an education degree. We decided to get married in November of 2008 and had a small, country wedding.

While I had been told by three ob-gyns and an endocrinologist that I would never have children, we had our son in October of 2009. We should have known at his birth that we would have an interesting ride ahead. Russell was the first tested case of Swine Flu in Travis County after having been in the NICU with our son all day. We were all placed in isolation. I did not meet our son until he was 9 days old.

While it was a rough start, little did we know that it was nothing compared to what we were about to face.

March 11, 2010, will always be etched in my mind. We had moved to Cedar Park outside of Austin and our son was in an at-home daycare in Leander, the next city over. I left school late that night as I was part of teaching an adult English as a second language class. I called my mom and she asked if I knew where my husband and son were. I got to the daycare at 10 pm to pick up our son because Russell never made it. He was fading fast in a hospital.

Russell had called into work that day because his back hurt. This was not typical of him. Over the course of the day, he started to lose different body functions. By the Grace of God, he was able to drag himself downstairs and a neighbor answered the door and called 911. By the time I arrived in the ER that night, Russell was barely talking and not able to move his legs. We almost lost him the next day. He was transferred to  Seton Main and spent several days in the ICU. By the time he started to respond to the massive amounts of steroids, he was paralyzed from the nipple line down. Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis or ADEM was the diagnosis with Transverse Myelitis. He had to relearn all basic functions.

Russell was declared completely disabled. He was 24 at the time and we did not pick adequate coverage for long or short-term disability. Waiting 6 months to start any income was the longest summer ever, I also could not get a job, and not for lack of trying. This was when I took out my first student loan just to live. So much uncertainty.

Russell developed a DVT blood clot in the hospital and it was the first indication that he had a blood clotting disorder. I joke that I could be a doctor but really it was the research to understand what we were being told that would eventually lead me to become a librarian.

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Russell did try to go back to work and did not even last a few hours. We did not know this at the time but because he did this, it allowed his company to lay him off and for his insurance disability benefits to stop.

We got a letter the Friday of my graduation that his insurance retroactively went back 6 months and denied all claims. Turns out it is legal. When I graduated as a certified teacher in 2011, I was in desperate need of a job for our young family. The problem was that the Texas Education Agency had cut funding across the state and not only did many districts have hiring freezes but reductions in force as well. I found myself working as a receptionist at a beauty school and subbing.

I was able to get a teaching job the following year in 2012 and started my Master’s in 2013 to become a librarian. Also, accruing more student loan debt. We had our daughter in February of 2015 and I graduated with my Master’s in May of 2015.

I love being a librarian but I make the same amount as a teacher. With a disabled husband, who by 2014 had a multiple sclerosis diagnosis and chronic migraines bringing his total to six chronic illnesses, I realized I needed to figure out how to earn more money. I went for my principal certification and earned it.

After interning, volunteering, interviewing and more, I was told that my librarianship did not count for teaching experience in order to get hired as an assistant principal. I was devastated.

Summer of 2019, I was offered a job as an outreach librarian for a public library. I took it and loved it but realized quickly that once the students went back to school, that I missed them. I went back to teaching but in the transition, we were in jeopardy of not making rent.

This is when I took out a title loan. Big Mistake yet maybe our saving grace.

A lot of people think that teachers get paid over the summer to stay home. The reality is that our contracts are our day rate times the number of days in our contract divided by 12. Well, when I started teaching 2nd grade on November 11, 2019, I made the smallest amount I have ever made in education. We could not figure out how to get out from under this title loan. I called my credit union trying to get more credit and instead I was given the number for GreenPath. We took the free budget recommendation from Ian and ran with it. When we got our tax return, we paid it off!

Then the pandemic hit. I was teaching virtually and Russell got a job after trying to do so for so many years. We were a hot mess.

Across my email came an invitation to be part of financial counseling. I signed up and we got Alison.  She has been the biggest blessing. She is helping us to reframe the conversations that we have with money. We have stumbled a lot but we are trying to relearn our lifetime of bad habits.

Yet, even in this time of uncertainty with COVID, politics, the economy and if we are ever going to be able to buy a house, Alison has been so patient with us. We are starting out on this journey and we are so grateful for the much-needed guidance.

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