MOUNT VERNON, Wash. - Kaitlyn Toomey views herself like any other teenager, except for one thing: She doesn’t have a home.
Sometimes Kaitlyn, 15, and her single mother are taken in by friends or relatives, but over the past several years they have spent months living out of a minivan.
As if working through school by studying at the library or with a book lamp in a car weren’t challenging enough, Kaitlyn spends her spare time volunteering to help others. She’s held a stuffed animal drive for children in trauma and serves meals at a Mount Vernon soup kitchen. She’s also on her way to achieving the highest honor in Girl Scouts — the gold award — through long-term service work in the community.
The cheery teen doesn’t feel down about her situation, but there is one thing that bothers her: stereotypes.
She hopes her example of helping others amid her own struggles will break down the prejudices people have about homelessness.
“People can see not all homeless people are mentally ill, drug addicts or alcoholics,” she said. “We’re none of those, but we are homeless. Not everyone is what homeless people are put up to be. I’m just a normal person that doesn’t have a house.”
Kaitlyn’s stepfather died when she was young, and her mother, Candy Toomey, was unable to find a job after she injured her back while working at a nursing home. Candy has been trying to find work for years and was finally hired last week at a tax service business. The Toomeys are currently living with Candy’s cousin in Conway.
The two have been on a waiting list for low-income housing for the past four years and hope they can find a permanent home this year. Their van has broken down.
“We’re not picky,” Candy said of the type of housing they would accept.
At school, Kaitlyn keeps her situation quiet and tries to blend in.
“The people that I have told say ’what?’” she said. “They don’t believe me.”
So far this year, she has perfect attendance.
Debbie Wilkison of Anacortes, who works at Catholic Community Services, said she met Kaitlyn about three years ago and was struck by the teen’s cheery disposition.
Wilkison volunteers at Reverie BBQ the last five days of the month when the restaurant serves free meals to anyone who comes through the door. Kaitlyn and her mother are regulars there, a nice break from fast-food dollar menus, a staple of their diet.
Kaitlyn always had a smile and gave Wilkison a big hug when she saw her. Wilkison took Kaitlyn under her wing and has watched the teen navigate her homelessness along with the normal challenges of being a teenager.
“She doesn’t have that sort of ’poor-me’ attitude that a lot of teenagers that don’t have problems have,” Wilkison said.”She just maintains a really optimistic ’go-forward-we’re-going-toget-this-done’ attitude in the face of a lot of things that would have taken the wind out of most adults.”
Kaitlyn’s pastor also has been impressed by her selflessness.
“She’s not been trapped in her own needs, but been able to see beyond her own needs to help other people,” said the Rev. Ron Deegan of First Baptist Church in Mount Vernon. “I think she has a bright future because she has this inner stamina to make things happen, to get through her schooling and to strive for excellence in all she does.”
Kaitlyn said the stability of Girl Scouts and church have helped her keep focused on other people’s needs. But Candy said Kaitlyn always has had a volunteer’s spirit, which began at age 5 when she would help her elderly neighbors with yard work.
One of her Girl Scouts leaders, Stacy Steen, of Arlington said earning badges and awards is hard enough for children with a stable home life.
“She comes in and does what she is supposed to and tries really hard,” Steen said. “It’s pretty amazing for what she’s gone through.”
Kaitlyn says she doesn’t get jealous of her peers who have fancy clothes or take trips to Hawaii. “That’s just what they do,” she said. She plans to spend her spring break serving meals at a soup kitchen. Candy said on the rare occasion when she does get to buy her daughter something new, like a special shirt, Kaitlyn is the one to say “no, we can’t afford that.”
For Christmas, Candy bought Kaitlyn a camera the teen had picked out and put on layaway. Kaitlyn said she hopes to be a professional photographer when she gets older.
Her homelessness, she said, is just a phase in her life that she tries to view as an adventure — not something that will hold her back from her own goals or helping other people.
“It’s just something that has made me stronger and unique,” she said.