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Resident Success Story

When Athena Witham moved into BangorHousing, she had recently given birth to her first child. Like most new parents, she felt the weight of responsibility to provide a safe home in a positive environment and opportunities for her child to thrive. 

Without a college degree or workforce training, Athena soon realized that the jobs for which she was qualified simply would not pay enough to cover the cost of childcare. It was a frustrating reality that left her feeling trapped in generational poverty.

“I knew I didn’t want to continue the cycle of generational poverty, but it was hard to accept help,” said Witham. “There’s a real stigma around public housing and taking advantage of the programs that are part of it. It creates an internalized pressure to do it all yourself.”

After meeting with Heather Higgins, an FSS coach, Athena joined the BangorHousing Family Self Sufficiency Program with a goal of going back to school and completing her bachelor’s degree.

The Family Self Sufficiency Program was launched in 2015 to help BangorHousing residents realize their goals. Participants are coached through the process of setting personal and financial goals. They gain access to Boys & Girls Club services, social and emotional skill development courses for the family, plus access to services from more than a dozen partner agencies, for everything from financial and career development services to childcare, early childhood education, and mental health counseling.

“The FSS program helped me feel dignified,” said Witham. “They met me as a person and helped me navigate life on my own terms. I was able to make full decisions and have the support to be bold.”

With the support of FSS, Athena embarked on a journey that would take her farther than she ever thought possible. She graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in social work – this had been her original goal, but after achieving it she felt she wanted to do more and continued to earn a master’s degree. With two young children at home, the decision to remain in school was challenging.

“Even with a great support system it was really hard,” she said. “There were times I was working four jobs, going to school, and trying to be the best mom I could be for my kids. I knew getting my master’s degree would give us more economic freedom, but it was hard to say, ‘yes, I’m going to do this for two more years.’”

Along the way, Athena worked directly with Heather and Liz Marsh to manage her goals and challenges. She took part in childcare programs and budgeting and financial literacy courses— all helping her build a better picture of what success and self-sufficiency meant to her. She recalled how the team was, “relentless in a good way,” and provided check-ins and kindness.

“I remember feeling really low at one point,” she said. “BangorHousing was hosting a Valentine’s Dance, and I took the kids. It was such a simple thing but so meaningful to me. That dance gave me time to connect with my kids and neighbors and refilled me to keep on going.”

With her master’s degree in hand, Athena is now working in public health for the City of Bangor and exploring teaching opportunities at the University of Maine. She is looking forward to this next chapter and enjoying her achievements.

“I have a great sense of pride in what I’ve been able to do,” she said. “I have changed the course for my children and future generations. Now I’m looking forward to learning how to relax a little. To live in the moment and be present for myself as a woman and a mother.”