Local women find creative ways to make ends meet

DOWNEY - Much like the state of California, many Downey residents have fallen on hard times. According to economists, the recent recession ended in June 2009, but many residents' financial security still hangs in the balance. With soaring food prices, a Southern California housing market that kicked off 2011 with a slump, little job security and the most competitive job market in recent history, some are considering leaving the once affluent suburb of Downey and the state of California entirely, which boasts one of the highest costs of living in the country.Under these conditions it seems that it would be difficult to remain optimistic, but after speaking to several Downey women, it became clear that the key to staying afloat in a challenging economy is being creative. Maribel Gonzalez is a former mortgage loan processor with seven children, ranging in age from nine months to 14-years-old. After suffering a serious illness shortly after giving birth to her twin boys, Gonzalez left her job and became a full-time mom while her husband worked as a truck driver and dispatcher. When the difficulties of raising seven children on one paycheck became too overwhelming, Gonzalez began having yard sales with her neighbors. Downey residents are only allowed to have two yard sales per year, so Gonzalez and her neighbors take turns selling their items at each other's sales. Sometimes raking in as much as $300 from her children's old clothes and toys, Gonzalez decided to branch out into other ventures. She now purchases perfume wholesale in Downtown L.A. and sells it to neighbors, friends and family members. Gonzalez also sells fleece blankets made by her mother. The extra income may not equate to an extra paycheck, but every little bit helps and it's money she and her husband have come to depend on. Julie Richter is an executive assistant in the aerospace industry. The company she works for recently decided to "reorganize," meaning there was a possibility some in high-level management positions would be let go, which could leave Richter without a job as well. Afraid that she was going to be blindsided, the Downey resident of four years decided to be proactive. "In this industry there is a lot of uncertainty. I figured I might as well put myself out there and see what I could cultivate. That way if something with my job did happen, I'd have a few leads," Richter said. So the 42-year-old, who's been sewing since the seventh grade, decided to start advertising her services as a seamstress on Craigslist, a free network of classified ads from around the country. A self-described "Craigslist junky," Richter has been contacted by many for her services, but very few progress beyond the initial e-mail exchange. "So many people approach you online, but when it comes time to put up or shut up, they don't put up," Richter said. Peddling any kind of work online requires a great deal of commitment and patience because it often ends in disappointment. Some respond to ads on a whim, not serious about their inquiries, while others attempt to lower already cheap prices. "People go on Craigslist because they want a bargain, so they haggle with you. They would never walk into a dress shop and haggle with the owner about the price, but people feel that's OK to do online," Richter said. "There's this notion that alterations are easy to do, but they're not. I'd literally rather make a wedding dress from scratch than alter one. People want you to do alterations for next to nothing because they think you're desperate. The sad thing is that if I didn't have a full-time job, I'd have to take what they offered like a lot of other people are forced to do." Richter's real passion lies in wedding planning. She continues posting her Craigslist ads hoping to land a job designing dresses for a spring wedding, but until that happens she's found another creative way to make some extra cash. A year ago Richter and her live-in boyfriend heard about the $8,000 federal housing tax credit for first-time home buyers, so they decided to move from their "teeny, tiny" apartment to a large condo. The couple couldn't afford to furnish the condo with the extra furniture it needed, so Richter sold their old furniture and began scouring Craigslist looking for pieces she could refinish, reupholster or paint. Eventually, she was able to furnish their entire condo with her own customized designs for under $1,200. Her decorating went over so well friends that they're now requesting her services. Once she obtains a deposit, Richter searches Craigslist for the requested pieces and then applies her magic touch. "I'm still learning how to rework pieces to their full potential, but I feel really good that I'm able to repurpose what someone would have thrown out," Richter said. "I'm not one of those people who are totally 'green,' but this is an easy way to make a difference; I'm giving these items new life. I'm not really in a place where I can depend on this extra income yet. I look at it as bonus money; when it comes, it comes and I'm happy to have it." Another Downey woman is also using her talent and the Internet to make extra cash, but she doesn't keep a penny of the money she makes. Sarah Shead has been living in Downey for nearly seven years, but she actually grew up in Chile where her parents were missionaries. When she was young, a Chilean pastor stayed with her family and his wife taught Shead how to knit. Once she graduated from her English-speaking high school, Shead decided to attend a Bible college in Missouri. She worked at a bank for a while and took up crocheting, a skill taught to her by her grandmother. Eventually, she contacted a family friend in Downey and obtained an internship at First Christian Church on New Street. When Shead moved to Downey she was only making a part-time salary as an intern and was struggling to make ends meet in ultra expensive Southern California. One day at work Shead saw an ad in a Downey publication for Etsy, an online marketplace geared towards those who make their own goods. At this point, Shead had been crocheting for 10 years and decided to start her own online "store" through Etsy called SarahsBusyHands, hoping her talent would provide her with extra income. Eventually, Shead's job at the church expanded and she was given a pay raise, but part of her new work responsibilities involved calling and writing letters to church members requesting money for mission trips to Latin America. "I didn't like relying on other people's generosity," Shead said. "It chaffed me to have to write a letter asking for money." Before, Shead's talents provided her with some extra pocket money, but it occurred to her that she could now use her talents to benefit others. "I realized that I could make money for the church doing something I love to do anyways," Shead said. "Now instead of writing a letter asking for money, I can say, 'Buy a hat or scarf.'" The holidays are Shead's busiest time. Two years ago she knitted non-stop, taking custom orders and raising nearly $700 for the church's mission trip to Latin America. This past Christmas Shead raised $400 with her knitting and because she didn't go on the mission trip, she sent the money directly to missionaries living in Ecuador, who are often in need of multi-vitamins, clothing, shoes and toiletries. Shead is considering having her hats and scarves sold at local boutiques, but she's humble about her talents and uncomfortable setting a price. "I'm a cheapskate at heart. I know how much yarn costs and I don't really value what I do because it comes so easy to me and I consider it fun," Shead said. "If the materials for a hat cost $2.50, how could I possibly charge $20 for it?" The 30-year-old may soon have to make peace with her issues surrounding the price of her items, especially if she wants to meet a goal she recently set for herself. On one of her many trips to Ecuador she established a relationship with a young woman who had many siblings her mother couldn't care for. With no way to obtain an education on her own, Shead promised to help send the girl to beauty school, something the girl expressed interest in. It's Shead's hope that the help she provides will help the girl have a career and eventually, break free of the cycle of poverty her family has been perpetuating for years. "After my mission trips I realize that we're blessed with so much in this country," Shead said. "I have a job that can pay my bills and it's important to me that I share the blessings I've received. I make a livable income, but not enough to give as much as I would like. I don't touch a cent of the money I make from crocheting; it's my way of being able to give back to those who need it more."

********** Published: March 3, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 46