December 28, 2003
Between battling multiple sclerosis, coping with abusive relationships, and being a single mom, Kim Zoltowski's trials make her old life in the Marine Corps look easy.
The 33-year-old North Port resident spent two years as a full-time Marine and seven years in the reserves between 1990 and 1999, ending as a lance corporal.
Doctors diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis in October 2000. Zoltowski moved to Englewood from Texas with three of her four children in January 2002 to live with her grandmother. She said her husband became unsupportive and abusive after she developed multiple sclerosis, and she came to Florida without him.
Her quality of life quickly went south when Zoltowski's grandmother, who Zoltowski says suffers from dementia, kicked her and the children out of the house. She resorted to living with friends for a week.
Later in January 2002, caring for three children with no home to call her own and stricken with a debilitating disease, Zoltowski learned about Domestic Abuse Shelter Homes.
The Englewood-based agency gave Zoltowski and her children a place to stay until May, when they helped her secure federal Housing and Urban Development funds to move into an apartment.
Less than a month ago, Zoltowski and her daughters Armani, 4, Savannah, 7, and Alexandria, 8, moved into a house in North Port. Oldest daughter Stephanie, 11, lives in Michigan with an ex-husband from a previous marriage.
Zoltowski said she considers the family's new home to be her first home on her own.
DASH "built my self-esteem back, so that I could do this on my own," she said. "They had to slap some sense into me sometimes. They helped me get on my feet."
Zoltowski is unable to work because of her disease. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society defines multiple sclerosis, which has caused Zoltowski temporary paralysis nine times, as a "chronic, unpredictable neurological disease that affects the central nervous system."
After leaving the DASH shelter in May 2002, Zoltowski lived for a while at the Riley Chase apartment complex in North Port.
Then Rhonda Hard, a friend of Zoltowski, helped her secure a $708 per month rent-to-own deal on a modest two-bedroom single-family home in November. Zoltowski and her daughters moved in to the house, owned by Hard's mother-in-law, the day after Thanksgiving.
DASH Executive Director Donna LeClerc said Zoltowski is a DASH success story whose strong character helped her transition from near homelessness to would-be homeownership. She said the extreme circumstances surrounding Zoltowski's life energized the agency to assist her.
"When she first called us she was absolutely hysterical. They had just run out of the house and jumped in the vehicle with the grandmother behind them with a knife," LeClerc said.
Zoltowski said DASH was instrumental in helping her turn her life around.
"They are always in my life," she said.
Since she cannot work due to her disease, Zoltowski said she spends her days tending to her house and spending time with her daughters. While she said her quality of life has vastly improved since she moved into her home on Ketona Road, making ends meet is not easy.
Zoltowski survives on less than $1,700 a month between Social Security Income, child support, federal Housing and Urban Development funds, and Food Stamps. Medicaid pays her health costs.
With monthly rent of $708 and ever-deteriorating health, Zoltowski said her future is never certain.
"So many nights I went to sleep thinking, 'God please let me die,'" she said. "And then I'd wake up the next morning thinking, 'God, thank you for letting me live another day.'"
LeClerc said DASH serves approximately 500 clients each year in Sarasota and Charlotte Counties, 25 percent of whom go through the transitional housing program that assisted Zoltowski.
The agency, which serves both women and men, received $5,000 in Season of Sharing money in 2003, she said.
The agency keeps the locations of its shelters confidential to protect its clients, LeClerc said. She said DASH assists clients with housing, automobiles, continuing education and other services as needed.
"We try to put them in a situation that's better than what they left," LeClerc said.
Hard, still a close friend of Zoltowski's, attributes her strength to her background as a Marine.
"She's a true fighter," Hard said.
Copyright © 2003, Sarasota Herald-Tribune