I have three children, she told the operator. My youngest daughter has special needs. My husband is ill. We’re facing homelessness. The operator connected Leah Wade to Hopelink, one of 12 nonprofits aided by holiday-time donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.

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The day she received an eviction notice from her landlord, Leah Wade didn’t know where to turn.

Her family was on the brink of financial collapse. Luca, the youngest of her three children, suffered severe health problems due to a genetic abnormality, and required round-the-clock care. Her husband was ill and unable to work. The family had steadily burned through savings and filed for bankruptcy. They had no money to pay the rent.

And Wade knew that if baby Luca caught any kind of virus — even a common cold — the illness could trigger dangerous seizures. Homelessness could mean the difference between life and death.

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On the advice of a neighbor, a retired crisis counselor, Wade called 211 — the number that provides information and referrals to social service agencies.

I have three children, she told the operator. My youngest daughter has special needs. My husband is ill. We’re facing homelessness. I don’t know what to do.

The operator connected the Wade family to Hopelink, an agency that serves the Eastside and North King County with programs aimed at stabilizing families in economic distress, and transitioning households out of poverty.

Hopelink is one of the 12 organizations helped by The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. Donations to the fund go directly to helping people in the community.

Wade began receiving help from Hopelink in 2016, and over the course of the last two years, Hopelink has helped her find transitional housing, helped pay for heating and provided her with financial coaching to help her repair her credit. Because of Luca’s care, Wade often can’t leave her house, so a case worker personally delivered food-bank groceries to her home twice a week for a year and ordered diapers, clothes and a car seat. Hopelink has also provided legal assistance for her divorce.

“I was blown away by what was available to me and the kids,” she said.

Today, she is back on her own feet, a Hopelink success story.

Leah Wade is shown at a friend’s house with her children Grayson, 8, left, Luca, 3, and Reese, 11, on a recent afternoon. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Leah Wade is shown at a friend’s house with her children Grayson, 8, left, Luca, 3, and Reese, 11, on a recent afternoon. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

From a promising future to bankruptcy

Wade tells the story of her family’s misfortunes in a careful, methodical fashion. Only occasionally does her voice quaver with emotion.

“For me, accepting the help is really difficult,” she said. “One of the hardest things is to receive when you know you can’t give back.”

In the early years of their lives together, the Wades were doing well financially, living a solidly middle-class life, and imagining a bright future for their growing family. Wade’s husband headed a team at a California wealth-management firm, and Leah, who studied fashion in college, had started her own swimwear design business. They eventually had two healthy boys, Reese, who is now 11, and Grayson, who is 8.

But the family fell on hard times during the recession in 2009, and soon after, Wade’s husband developed an illness that made it impossible for him to hold down a job.

In the meantime, Leah became pregnant with her third child. But something was wrong: Doctors could tell that the fetus wasn’t growing normally, although they did not know why.

Luca Wade was born in May 2015, and although she was born at full-term, she weighed only 4 pounds, 7 ounces. She was diagnosed with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes a wide range of complex health issues. She has two heart defects, delayed growth and development, and severe digestive issues that require her to be fed 22 hours a day through a tube. Children born with the syndrome do not have long life spans, and many do not make it past their second year, Wade said.

Luca has experienced life-threatening seizures, and has needed round-the-clock care all of her life. During her first year, she experienced a string of medical emergencies, and Wade called 911 almost every other week.

The family burned through their savings and had no rent money. One day, they received an eviction notice. With no place to go, Wade wondered whether the family could live in their car — and then she thought about how the smallest ailments could trigger Luca’s seizures.

“I felt completely alone,” she said. “It seemed surreal, all the things that were happening.”

Luca Wade, diagnosed with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, had a severe seizure in May that caused partial paralysis of one side of her body. Her mother, Leah Wade, describes the 3-year-old as “pure joy.” (Leah Wade)
Luca Wade, diagnosed with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, had a severe seizure in May that caused partial paralysis of one side of her body. Her mother, Leah Wade, describes the 3-year-old as “pure joy.” (Leah Wade)

After she was connected to Hopelink, the agency assigned the Wades a case manager, and they became one of the approximately 63,000 people helped last year through the agency’s food banks, family-development programs, shelters and housing facilities, shuttles and financial-assistance services. The program helps families create a long-term, step-by-step plan of action aimed at getting them off assistance.

In the short term, the crisis was averted: While Wade’s family waited for housing to open up, a generous group of friends and neighbors raised enough money to keep them housed for six months in a small basement apartment in a house being remodeled for sale.

Her Hopelink case manager helped Wade get on lists for transitional housing, where she has lived for the last two years. She’ll soon be moving out.

Today, she and her husband are finalizing a divorce. Through volunteer work, she met a kindred spirit, Travis Jorgensen, another divorced parent with children of his own. The two parents are working on blending their families together in one household in Kirkland.

One day in November, Luca watched intently while boys Reese and Grayson romped through the house with Jorgensen’s dog, labradoodle Brandi. Wade says Brandi sleeps outside Luca’s door, and runs to Luca’s side whenever she’s having health problems.

Luca cannot talk or walk. She’s just 23 pounds, small for a 3-year-old. She is tube-fed on breast milk, the only thing she can digest; the family must find donors. Six months ago, a severe seizure left her partially paralyzed on one side.

Luca goes to preschool at Juanita Elementary for two hours a day, four days a week, and receives speech therapy, vision therapy, occupational and physical therapy at school. Her mother knows that letting Luca go to school means she’s exposed to germs, but she doesn’t want her daughter to live in a bubble. In the next year, she’ll have open heart surgery.

“She has brought so much love to my life,” Wade said. “She has honestly carried me through in those hardest days. She’s pure joy — I feel blessed to be her mom, despite all of the hardships.”

During a game with her mother, Luca Wade, 3,  kisses her reflection in the mirror. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
During a game with her mother, Luca Wade, 3, kisses her reflection in the mirror. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

And Wade has done her part to give back. Recently, she began volunteering with The MoreLove Project,  which partners with Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission to help feed, clothe and support people living in Seattle’s homeless camps. That’s where she met Jorgensen.

Her own experience has taught her not to judge others from their outward circumstances, and to treat people with compassion.

“If people only knew what other people were going through, they would not hold judgment,” she said. “We don’t know their story.”