Sabena Moriarty's ready smile dims briefly as she snuggles on the couch between her husband, Stephan, two of her children, Aidan and Ava, and her 8-month-old baby, Phineas. She doesn't like to think about her family's fate if she hadn't reached out for help and been rescued by her community during last year's Light One Candle holiday-giving series.
"I don't know where we'd be," Sabena says, shaking her head. "I hate to go there."
Twelve months ago, the U.S. Marine Corps veteran was seven months into a difficult and unexpected pregnancy, struggling to care for the seven children in her blended family. Her husband, Cpl. Stephan Moriarty, was on deployment in Iraq with the Oregon Army National Guard.
Holding together the hearts and minds of her emotionally struggling children was hard enough for the overwhelmed mom who was desperately missing her husband. But the cascading effect of medical bills for surgeries and the loss of Stephen's paycheck as the retail manager for Staples was compounded when the couple's former spouses abandoned their share of responsibilities for two of the children. (See clarification below.)
The result was an eviction notice, threats of vehicle repossession and a horrifying realization for Sabena.
"We were blindsided by a weird sequence of circumstances. Forget Christmas presents, we weren't going to have a place to live," she said.
For Stephan, the memories of those months he spent serving his country while his wife and children were struggling at home are equally troubling. Stephan said he realized that although he was in harm's way, the military was caring for his needs.
"I had food and shelter while my family was at risk of becoming homeless," Stephan said. "It's hard to admit when you can't make it work — but harder to be away and know my family is suffering. That they are in a war of their own."
Desperate, frightened and ill, Sabena reached out for help. She called United Way of Jackson County. The nonprofit agency told the Mail Tribune about the Moriartys, and their story kicked off the 2009 Light One Candle series.
Telling their story was not easy for Sabena or Stephan, said Dee Ann Everson, United Way director.
"I know it was hard for her," Everson said. "But I hope that their story helps dispel myths about people who need help."
Everson told the Moriartys if they could find the courage to tell their story publicly, it would help others, as well, Sabena said.
"If we can facilitate help, that's truly the miracle of our community," Everson said to Sabena.
Everson was right. The community did help the Moriarty family. And the spillover of generosity kept on helping.
"Ten other families got to stay in their homes because we were in the paper," said Sabena. "We live in a great place with incredibly generous people. And Light One Candle goes a long way to promote and foster that in our community."
Sabena and Stephan's smiles return as they recount myriad memories of what happened after their story appeared on the front page of the Mail Tribune. The couple laugh and complete each other's sentences while discussing the changes wrought in the lives of all their children, now ages 8 months to 18 years.
"I want people to know, 'Hey! You saved us and now we can give back to others,' " Sabena said.
Rent was paid. Food was bought. The children were inundated with gifts large and small. Sabena's wish for a Christmas tree resulted in a veritable forest appearing at their Ashland home.
"Somebody made us each a handmade quilt," Sabena said. "I just really love that." One elderly couple showed up at their doorstep with $100, said Sabena.
"They wouldn't give me their names," she said.
As their story traveled across the Internet, help rolled in from across the nation. Even from those still serving overseas. One of Stephan's fellow soldiers sent money to the United Way on their behalf, Sabena said.
"It was meant to be anonymous," said Stephan. "But I found out. And it felt really good to know that someone in-country with me, who had family members of his own, cared enough to send money to help out my family."
One note that accompanied another special donation still touches Sabena beyond measure. The Good Samaritan had sent a check for $1,000, and a memory that will last a lifetime.
"She said her mom and brother had passed away," said Sabena. "She wrote that she was using all their earthly possessions to help people in need. It made me cry. It still gives me chills."
Anyone who has ever doubted whether their gifts truly make a difference in the long run should know that it was the kindness of strangers far and wide who pulled the Moriarty family back from the brink of homelessness. And possibly worse, Sabena said.
"My husband was safer in Iraq because he was not as stressed. The kids were less stressed. And my pregnancy was helped. Phin came out into a really stable environment," she said. "I was having way too many complications with the pregnancy."
Strolling down the hallway toward the front door with her baby in her arms, Sabena points out each child's bulletin board. Her oldest, Alexandra, 18, has graduated from Ashland High School and gone off to college. Aidan, 4, Ava, 2, and little Phineas are too young for school. Brandon, 16, Diana, 12, Annessa and Connor, both 8, are in school. Their frames are filled with smiling photos, sports medals and scholastic achievement awards.
"We are teaching our children, as a community, we can take care of each other," Sabena said. "It's a good thing to teach your children and a good thing to practice. Ali is off to college. But she was working at the Dunn House (women's shelter) before she left."
Stephan remains in the National Guard, in charge of the military funeral honor guard in White City. Sabena recently spoke before a United Way campaign training. Her speech resulted in a standing ovation, Everson said.
"The volunteers stood up and cheered and clapped immediately," she said.
Sabena said she wanted the volunteers to know how much their efforts are needed and appreciated.
"I want people to understand the littlest thing can help," she said. "Look around at your neighbors. They may look fine, but their world could be collapsing. Realize it could be you in the needing seat."
The Moriartys have rebudgeted and reorganized their lives over the course of the past year, Stephan said. They are looking forward to following this year's Light One Candle series and supporting another family in its time of need, he added.
Meanwhile, Sabena has a holiday message for everyone who helped her family last year.
"Merry Christmas. And thank you. We think of you every day," she said.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail email@example.com.
Clarification: Joseph Gilliland has made child support payments for children he had with his former wife, Sabena Moriarty. Stories about Moriarity and her current family in the “Light One Candle” series indicated that “former spouses” of Moriarty and her current husband had not paid child support, but Gilliland was not one of the former spouses referred to.