It was 30 stair steps from the door of the apartment to the street, and LaShawn Claiborne remembers counting each one, praying she wouldn’t trip, carrying her 8-month-old daughter in a stroller.

She’d come back to Seattle to try to make a life: She was raised by her father, relatives and foster families back east, but she needed a new start, and she thought she could do that if she came back to where she was born.

Claiborne didn’t know, counting those steps down to the street, how bad things were about to get — that she and baby Maleah would end up homeless in Seattle, and that an agency called Wellspring Family Services would provide her the support family could not.

Claiborne’s story is rife with many of the modern causes of family homelessness: wages that don’t cover rent, conflict within families, and domestic violence. Wellspring, one of the nonprofits benefiting from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy donation drive, seeks to address all three of these. Wellspring’s programs offer assistance with clothing, housing, and preparing young children to succeed in school.

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Before Wellspring, the only service Claiborne had used was a relocation program in Miami that bought her the Greyhound bus ticket to Seattle. Things started out all right: She stayed with family in a Federal Way apartment and got a job at Walmart in less than two weeks.

But Claiborne felt as if her baby wasn’t safe while she was at work, and she didn’t get along with the relative she was staying with. She decided to leave after a fight with her relative. As she was getting ready to go, the relative hit her in the face, according to a police report.

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Claiborne called the police and they made an arrest, but Claiborne was out of a place to stay. She had no rental history and couldn’t afford an apartment on a Walmart salary. Family shelters didn’t have space for her, she said, so for the next 32 days, she jumped from hotels, to sleeping on buses, to park benches. She left her daughter with an acquaintance, someone she barely knew, to spare her the experience.

Finally, she got connected with Wellspring through 2-1-1, a resource line for people experiencing homelessness. She left a message and got a call back from a “stability specialist” named Porscha Anderson. Anderson asked her what she needed, and sent her an Uber full of diapers and two Fred Meyer gift cards.

“I felt like I had gold in my hand,” Claiborne said. “At this time, I felt like I wasn’t by myself no more. I had to come to Seattle before I could actually see there’s help.”

What your donation means for Wellspring

$25: One new toy and a new book for a child

$50: Diapers, wipes and formula for 1 baby for 1 week

$150: A new bed for a child moving into a stable home

$230: A month of nutritious meals and snacks for one student in Wellspring’s Early Learning Center 

Wellspring got her housed and within a week moved her into an apartment near the border of Shoreline. She went back to work at Walmart, now full-time because Wellspring helped Claiborne with child care, enrolling Maleah in its prekindergarten program for families struggling with homelessness. Tuition was covered by scholarship money from individual donors.

But Claiborne didn’t want to stay at Walmart: She wanted to go back to school to study nursing, so Wellspring nominated her for a $10,000 scholarship from the Women’s University Club, which she won through a competitive application process, with help from Wellspring.

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“We were really lucky,” said Heather Fitzpatrick, CEO of Wellspring. “It was our first time (applying for the scholarship) and we had a great candidate.”

LaShawn Claiborne was able to return to work full time because Wellspring Family Services helped with child care, enrolling Maleah in its pre-kindergarten program for families struggling with homelessness. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
LaShawn Claiborne was able to return to work full time because Wellspring Family Services helped with child care, enrolling Maleah in its pre-kindergarten program for families struggling with homelessness. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Claiborne is now studying pre-nursing online at a college in Florida, where she plans on moving to finish the degree.

Without a positive mother figure in her life, Claiborne sometimes felt she had no role models for how to be a good mother. Then she and Maleah started seeing a parent-child therapist embedded in the day care at Wellspring.

“The first cycle I wanted to break was being a mother, because I didn’t have that. I don’t want to have a child and then have that child raised by somebody else,” Claiborne said. “My second cycle I wanted to break was being homeless. … I want to live my life without worrying about evictions and bills and my child being out on the street.”