- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) - Melinda Martinez doesn’t have much money, but she does wear an engagement ring on her finger.

Or, rather, she used to wear an engagement ring on her finger.

Her cellphone broke recently and without money to get it fixed or buy a new one she decided to head to the pawn shop.

“That phone is the link to everything; my kids’ schools, doctor’s offices, my school,” Martinez said.

She put her ring up as collateral for a $120 loan and has until March to pay it back or risk losing it forever.

She’s not worried about getting it back for two reasons: 1) The interest is low on the loan; and 2) This isn’t her first trip to the pawn shop with the ring.

“They know me there, they work with me. . I’ve pawned (the ring) for school books and back-to-school clothes for the kids,” said Martinez, a Lakeville native now living between Buttonwood Park and downtown. “It’s my one nice thing that I have. Literally, the only piece of jewelry I own.

“That ring is like collateral for my life.”

Melinda sees the pawn shop as a last resort; as long as the ring is on her finger, she knows some much-needed money isn’t far away. But the broken phone also keeps her from using money from the pawned ring for the holidays.

“I was hoping to hang on to it to make sure we had a Thanksgiving,” she said in the middle of November around the kitchen table with her fiancĂ©, Devin, by her side. “But you do what you got to do.”

She has applied for holiday assistance from The Salvation Army, which will provide two toys and an article of clothing for each of her children - Hannah, 8, Benjamin, 9, and John, 10 - as well as a food voucher to a local grocery store for a holiday meal.

“The Salvation Army’s a big help,” she said. “I hope someday I can give (the kids) one of those ‘Oh my God, Santa loves me’ Christmases.”

Melinda is on the right path to someday giving her children one of those magical Christmas mornings. The Bristol Community College honor student has already come so far, from a troubled childhood to homelessness and battling medical problems, but she keeps her eyes on the prize at the end of the road: a steady job with a steady paycheck and a family that doesn’t have to pawn jewelry to get by.

“There are people who are way worse off than I am,” Melinda said at The Salvation Army while applying for holiday assistance last month. “We have a roof over our heads.”

That wasn’t always the case.

She was homeless for a while last year after being evicted from a previous apartment. She said she rented from a “slum lord” and that she and several tenants in the building refused to pay rent while their complaints about the building were investigated by the city’s Board of Health.

“Nobody would rent to me after that because I had an eviction,” she said. “We had nowhere to go.”

The children went to live with their father, Melinda’s ex-husband, in the North End of the city, while she and Devin searched for a new home.

Melinda grew up in foster care and had no family to connect with in the area, so she started calling friends looking for a couch to crash on for a while.

She found one, but had to pawn the ring to help pay for her stay.

They eventually moved in with one of Devin’s relatives, although moved in isn’t quite the right term: She said she wasn’t allowed in the apartment and had to sleep in the apartment building’s hallway.

“I remember hoping (the relative) wasn’t home so I could go inside and warm up,” she said about last winter.

Melinda left and headed to a Catholic Social Services shelter. The organization helped her find the apartment that the family now calls home.

One option she never considered was a homeless shelter. Or at least a homeless shelter with the children.

“I never, never want my kids in a shelter,” she said. “I’ve been in halfway houses. I’ve seen and heard about the abuse.”

“I was so bad,” she says, her voice softening and her eyes dipping in shame.

She grew up in a foster home in Lakeville, but left when she turned 17 and dropped out of Apponequet Regional High School.

“I dropped out and got two jobs,” she said. “I thought it was a good idea at the time.”

Looking back on it, she regrets the trouble she caused her foster mother. She ran up a juvenile record, getting in trouble with the law for assault and other crimes, and even spent time at the Brockton Juvenile Detention Center.

“I learned a lot about the bad things in life,” she said. “I’m glad I got it out of my system while I was young. I’ve done a lot of things and been through a lot that I never wish upon my children.”

She also doesn’t wish her health problems and constant pain on her children.

She has an autoimmune disease similar to lupus, and spends a while rattling off medical terms, setbacks, surgeries, false diagnoses, symptoms and treatments when asked about it.

“It’s an invisible disease,” said Melinda, who recently had her 11th abdominal surgery. “It’s very taxing. There’s no cure. You can only hope to treat the symptoms.”

It also means she has sudden and frequent seizures; a condition that prevents her from getting behind the wheel of a car.

The latter of which just makes her devotion to education that much more impressive.

Through rain, sleet, snow and hail, Melinda has left her apartment and walked downtown, where she either takes a class at the BCC campus or takes the “hour-long” bus ride to the main campus in Fall River.

Some days she can get a ride from Devin, but most of the time he is out on his construction-type job in Lakeville and out of the transportation mix. So she bundles up and makes the trek, which is a little less than a mile.

“Last winter was tough,” she said. “The sidewalks were a mess.”

If she’s tired from the walk, she doesn’t let it show in her performance in the classroom. She is quick to pull out a membership card of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, and just as quick to show a transcript filled with As.

She is also a member of the Commonwealth Honors program, which is a link between community colleges and state universities. She is planning on attending UMass Dartmouth after she gets an associate’s degree from BCC. She is concentrating her studies on pre-law, and has English, sociology and legal office technology classes on the agenda next semester.

So it’s easy to see how the late afternoon and early evening hours are a busy time around the kitchen table in the small apartment. It’s a common sight to see Melinda buried in a book with sticky notes marking different sections and have the kids right around her doing their homework as well.

“I’ve been through a lot. There were times I wanted to give up, but it’s not about me. It’s about the kids,” she said. “I’ve got to finish. I’ve got to get a career, not a job. You can support a family with a career.”

___

Information from: The (New Bedford, Mass.) Standard-Times, http://www.southcoasttoday.com

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