LaToya O’Neal drew in a shaky breath Thursday as she opened the heavy metal door of a storage unit she had waited years to unlock.
She stared at the tower of her family’s belongings: the bed frames and the mattresses, the baby’s bouncing seat and her son’s little blue and red bicycle that he is now too big to ride.
“They were so small when we put this stuff in here,” she said.
Three years ago, after her hours at work had been cut from full-time to part-time, the bills had started to pile up and she couldn’t make the rent, O’Neal put most of her family’s belongings, everything from baby photos to cookbooks to couches, into the storage unit.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
The family moved from place to place, even spending time in a homeless shelter. They made do with the few items they could call their own.
Things eventually leveled out though. O’Neal, now 29, started working as a bus driver for Wake County Public Schools, and a few months ago the family, now with six children, found permanent housing. But the the rooms still were mostly empty, and the walls were undecorated. Despite her years of work to restore the family’s equilibrium, O’Neal didn’t have on hand the nearly $800 she owed to the storage company.
But when the company, Self Storage Solutions, heard what the O’Neal family had been through, it decided to forgive the debt. Then All-American Relocation offered a moving van to help transport the items.
O’Neal arrived at the storage facility knowing that she was in for a surprise but unsure just what to expect. The announcement, which she called “a blessing,” left her in tears.
It makes a difference to see and hold the things you’ve worked for, to be able to make a house into a home, she explained.
“When you work for something and you feel like you lost it, that’s hard,” she said.
Among the most precious items she recovered were a wooden rocking chair that she received as a baby shower gift and a tote bag with a photo of her children on it.
O’Neal beamed as she pulled the bag out of a pile on the moving van.
“It’s all dusty, but I’m going to wear it tomorrow,” she said.
O’Neal’s friends and colleagues at Wake schools worked behind the scenes to make the day happen after deciding to do something special for the family for the holidays. When O’Neal mentioned the storage unit to Michele Lesniak, a social worker at her children’s elementary school, the planners knew they had found just the thing.
O’Neal marveled that the surprise had grown out of her conversation with Lesniak, a moment that she remembered mostly because it had been an opportunity to let someone know what she was going through, which she doesn’t always find easy.
“That was a surprise because I was just opening up,” she said. “I wasn’t asking for anything. I just wanted to talk to somebody.”
Lesniak said the problem the O’Neal family encountered isn’t an uncommon one. Families sometimes must leave things in storage when they hit tough times, but they don’t have enough extra money to pay the fees to get their things out. There are few community resources dedicated to addressing the problem, she said.
Lesniak has known the O’Neal family for years. Before she left the storage facility, she hugged O’Neal tightly and told her how very happy she was for her.
“They’re just an amazing family,” Lesniak said.
O’Neal planned to unpack and organize with help from her children and fiance. She envisioned going about the rhythms of family life surrounded by familiar things.
“It will feel good to come home from work and plop down on the couch, to sit down for a second and then get up and cook dinner,” she said. “To be honest, it will be good to just open the door and see the house is finished.”