Wellspring Family Services, which helps homeless families, teaches abusive partners nonviolent behaviors and empowers parents to nurture their children's emotional development, is one of 13 agencies helped by The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, which has provided $12 million to local charities since 1979.

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With nowhere else to go, Monica Luna and Louis Padilla pushed the bench seats in their Chevrolet Suburban all the way to the back, making a little room. They laid down blankets to ward off the early winter cold, and pulled out some books and a Spanish card game called Loteria.

This, they would tell their children — ages 2, 3, 5 and 7 — was “camping out.”

Being forced to move into their car was not the first indignity for the Padilla family, and it would not be the last.

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Within a few months last year, they went from a relatively stable, double-income married life, living in a mobile home they owned in Renton, to utter destitution. They lost their jobs. Then their house. Then, finally, their car.

“It broke my heart. It felt awful,” said Luna, 27. “Things were OK, and then all of sudden they were not.”

A year later, the family is still somewhere short of stable. The couple and their kids are squeezed into a subsidized apartment at 25th Avenue and East Union. Luna has steady work, but Padilla is still looking.

For their children, the year had a ripple effect that Padilla and Luna are now sorting out. One son grew withdrawn, vacant. Another lashed out. They asked where they were going to stay that night. They asked why.

Thanks to a therapeutic child-care center operated by Wellspring Family Services, the children are re-emerging as children.

They are learning to talk about the anxiety and confusion. Instead of unpredictability and fear, they are finding routines and play.

Wellspring is one of 13 agencies helped by The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy, which has provided $12 million to local charities since 1979.

When the second-youngest, Armando, arrived at the center last year, he alternately would “cry all day” or act out in anger, said his teacher, Tyesha Lewis. “At first, we thought it was an attachment issue. But then we realized it was deeper.”

After nearly a year of work with Wellspring’s staff, Armando now appears as a bouncy, smiling 3-year-old with a comedian’s heart. He introduces himself as Spider-Man.

“He would get mad, run, slam the door, kick, throw something,” said Padilla, 36, a roll-around-the-floor-with-the-kids kind of father. “Now he’ll stand there and say, ‘Daddy, you made me sad.’ I can’t believe the difference.”

Jobs lost, then home

The trouble for the Padilla family began in September 2008, when Padilla lost his steady job as an assistant manager of an auto oil-change business. Luna, the determined head of what is clearly a matriarchy, worked as a medical-records specialist before she was laid off, too.

The personal safety net for lower-income families is always thin, but the state’s worst recession in 80 years shredded the Padillas’. They lost the mobile home that Luna’s family had owned, resulting in an eviction on their credit record. By November, they were living week to week in a Motel 6 near the airport, listening to air traffic at night.

Padilla got a holiday-season job at a Macy’s warehouse, earning just enough to cover housing but not the car payment. They stretched their food budget until he skipped meals. Luna called social-service agencies each morning, looking for a lifeline. “Everything we did was for the kids,” Luna said.

Luna knew her oldest child, 7-year-old Anna, absorbed their anxiety. But at first the boys — Jayden, Armando and Luciano — “just thought we were having little parties, with sleepovers.”

In December, the YWCA of Seattle stepped in, and the family moved to a transitional shelter that resembled an apartment. The desperation lifted when Luna landed a job at Planned Parenthood as a $13.40-an-hour back-office records assistant. She has tried to hide her family’s struggles from co-workers.

Although they’d also tried to shield their children from stress, Luna and Padilla began to wonder: What does all this do to a child?

Child-care therapy

As luck would have it, Jayden, 5; Luciano, 2; and Armando landed spots in March in Wellspring’s child care.

The nonprofit, until recently known as Family Services, has been in Seattle since 1892. Wellspring focuses on preventing homelessness, last year providing eviction assistance to 188 households, and 3,635 sessions for men accused of domestic violence, a leading cause of homelessness. In June, Wellspring opened a new, 35,000-square-foot building on Rainier Avenue South and expanded the child-care center.

With 10 children and two teachers in each class, the center has the staff for in-class therapy. A van picks up children at their homes. The center has a policy of never expelling a student, and there is no charge to families.

Lewis, Armando’s Wellspring teacher, said it also has a “no timeout” policy, instead helping children focus on consequences of their actions. Emotions are labeled and talked about.

Jill Klenota, a Wellspring therapist, said children must be able to process those emotions before they can begin learning their letters, colors or numbers. “There isn’t room in the mind to do both things.”

“Children are sponges”

Although families, including the Padillas, might try to hide the stress of homelessness from the kids, “young children are sponges, and they soak up everything going on with the parents,” she said.

For the Padilla children, the results are clear. Jayden is coming out of the shell he dropped into last year. Armando, who took the family’s instability the worst, now is playing puzzles with classmates instead of acting out. His language skills are improved. “I can really see the family working with him. He’s grown so much,” Lewis said.

Luna agreed. “All their skills — their fine motor, the communication skills — have turned around.”

In August, the family moved into an apartment owned by the YWCA that is close to Luna’s work and to Madrona Elementary, where Anna goes to school. They still don’t have a car, but they did decorate a lean Christmas tree — “a Charlie Brown tree,” Padilla jokes — with candy canes.

Padilla describes his unsuccessful job search as painful to his sense of fatherhood. But he says they’re trying to stay positive.

“When you get sad, it just brings wrong vibes to the family. The kids will ask, ‘Why are you crying?’ ” he said. “You don’t want them to see frustration or anger. We try to keep it fun, no matter if we have no money for the lights or the rent. We try to keep it focused on everything being OK.”

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com

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