Ella Richardson, 67, worked for a collection agency at one point in her life, so she knows the importance of a good credit rating. And although she’s been through a lot of tough times – including bankruptcies and foreclosures – she’s always been able to get her score back to where it needed to be.
But in September, when her husband, Thomas – who everyone called “Butch” – died, she had “two odd dollars” in her bank account and no way to pay her bills. She saw years of hard work crumble and knew she needed help.
Richardson grew up in Roanoke. As a child, she brought home good grades and never missed a day of school. Despite the opportunities that might have been presented to her, she says, the only thing she ever wanted to be was a mother. So when she got pregnant at 15, halfway through 9th grade, she quit school and married her baby’s father. Later they had another child.
“I love my kids,” she said, but motherhood wasn’t what she hoped for. Her husband was abusive from the start and it took her 12 years to break up with him. “It wasn’t a good marriage,” she said.
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Once he was gone, it was up to Richardson to provide for himself and his children. Because she stayed home with them, she never had a paid job. When she took a course on interview preparation, she said, she was offered to enroll in a GED course or take the test right away. She decided to go ahead and take the test, and after being out of school for 15 or 20 years, “I passed the first round.”
During her first job interview, she was told she was too inexperienced to be hired, but she managed to work her way up to the job.
“I asked how I was going to gain experience if I never got hired,” she said.
Over the next decade, Richardson worked as a secretary in a neonatal ICU and radiology department. In the meantime, she did “odd jobs that allowed me to continue working”.
Richardson said she loves her job. “I like meeting people of all kinds.”
But in 1994, just days after her 40th birthday, she suffered back-to-back heart attacks and has been receiving Supplemental Security Income payments ever since.
She met Butch in 1986, when they were both hospitalized in a rehabilitation center.
“It’s an unusual and strange story,” she said.
He was battling alcoholism and she was being treated for anxiety. They spent a lot of time talking, she said, and within just a few months, “we were really good friends.”
The relationship eventually deepened and the couple had 35 years of marriage together.
“When you saw one of us, you saw both of us,” she said.
Until the end, as Richardson tried to encourage her to adopt a healthier lifestyle, she said: ‘We never had a fight in our entire marriage. I never thought it was possible.”
The two managed to live quite well on their two incomes, even buying two houses, but lost both when they faced economic setbacks.
Butch had his own health issues. Three years after their marriage, he was hit by a car. His legs were shattered from the knee down, she said, and against the advice of his doctors he refused to have them amputated. Instead, he dragged himself on his arms for two years, raking leaves as he sat down and crafting stairs out of paint cans to reach his workbench. The following year, Richardson said, he had learned to walk again and returned to work.
“He couldn’t sit still,” Richardson explained.
But Butch only survived a few years before his injuries sidelined him again and he was permanently disabled. Still, the couple was able to live comfortably.
“We were just used to living that way,” Richardson said. “It kind of led us to live frugally. We lacked nothing.
In February, Butch, who suffered from several chronic illnesses, was hospitalized after an abdominal aneurysm paralyzed his legs. He was never well after that, Richardson said.
In September, the couple went to a family reunion, and for the first time in a long time, she said, he seemed to be more himself.
“We had a wonderful day,” she said. “We were so happy.”
When they went to bed that night, she said, nothing seemed to be wrong. But something woke her up in the wee hours of the morning, and when she reached out to Butch in the dark, he wasn’t responding. Paramedics came and confirmed he was dead – quietly slipping away next to her in bed.
Richardson only had a week or two to grieve before she had to face the reality that, without her income, she couldn’t afford to pay the rent for their place herself. Her daughters helped her as much as they could with other bills, she said. “I’ve tried everything to get help from other avenues,” she said, and she knows they intend to help her later in life.
Her youngest daughter suggested that she go to ministries in the Roanoke area. There, she received a subsidy for rent from the Emergency Financial Assistance Program, which is supported by the Roanoke Times Good Neighbors Fund. RAM social workers were able to find other charities to make up the rest, so Richardson was able to pay her bill in full for October.
“I think God puts people in your path,” she said of the help she received from RAM.
“I believe in Jesus and I prayed and prayed. God never gives you anything that is too big for you. I will never forget who my creator is.
But although Richardson appreciated the help, it still left him with no way to pay for his car or utilities, and RAM can only help him once a year.
Immediately after Butch died, she went to the Roanoke Social Services office and requested the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. She asked to receive Social Security payments from Butch, and since he was a veteran, she checked to see if she was eligible for a pension. She was told she would likely receive some of these benefits by November, but even a month behind on the bills was hard for her to contemplate.
“I’ve tried my whole life to keep my credit straight,” she said, tearing up.
Richardson also planned to move to a place where she could pay less rent, she said, but finding a place that was both cheap and safe enough for her to live on her own proved difficult.