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Family, down on its luck, finds a village in Medford

One of Medford’s newest families spent the past year hitting one roadblock after another before they unexpectedly found their “village,” made up of community members, total strangers and even local police.

By the time that Charlene Sigafoos and Demitrios Kandalepas stepped off a Greyhound bus in downtown Medford last month, they’d hit rock bottom, bounced around on its jagged edges, and found it a few times more.

The couple ventured west last year from Florida to be near Kandalepas’ family in California and the promise of a job and place to live. A broken-down U-Haul complicated their trip west, as did losing most of their belongings when the job offer didn’t pan out and they were forced into a shelter.

Living on Sigafoos’ disability checks, the couple pieced things together enough to stay at hotels, shelters and city parks.

Living outside made it tough to prepare for job interviews, and COVID-19 restrictions felt like “a nail in the coffin,” Kandalepas said.

“She gets disability checks at the beginning of the month, so we would get rooms for the first half of the month. The money would get us about 14 nights in a hotel, so we were kind of ‘shadowboxing’ it. We’d do one day inside, one day outside, just trying to make the money last all month.”

For a few months, the couple bounced between California and Oregon in hopes of an affordable, safe place to land. Last month, running on fumes and with no job prospects, Kandalepas was almost out of hope.

“The sun was beating down on us, and we were out of options. I said to myself, ‘I remember where we were before and it was at least better than this,’” said the father.

Left with only the belongings they could carry, the family used the last of their monthly funds for a bus ride to Southern Oregon. Within days, the police were onto them, a situation most homeless would avoid, but one that ended up meaning everything to the four travelers.

“We were laying in a hammock in one of the parks,” Sigafoos said. “An officer came up, and I thought, ‘Here we go.’ But he came up to us and said, ‘What are you doing? You can’t sleep in the park!’”

The officer offered some resources — Set Free Ministries, Compassion Highway Project, the Kelly Shelter and others. The family was camping in Hawthorne Park a few days later when they fell onto the radar of Medford police Officer Arturo Vega.

“I’m currently working bike patrol, and I had noticed them at the park in my day-to-day. I know there is a great deal of drug activity, and seeing them at the park, in my mind, wasn’t OK. I felt like one more day or one more night was one too many,” Vega said.

Feeling a tug on his heartstrings, Vega did what any good-hearted Samaritan would do. He called his wife.

Said Kandalepas, “It hadn’t been 20 minutes after he met us and he said, ‘Hold on. We’re going to figure something out.’”

Vega couldn’t fathom the small boys — 4-year-old Caleb and 5-year-old Joshua — sleeping in Hawthorne Park.

“I felt like we could at least do a couple nights. I figured, maybe that would give them a little time to figure something out,” said Vega.

Compassion Highway Project Director Melissa Mayne said the mother and father’s motivation to improve their situation compelled her to collect funds for permanent housing for the family.

A week-and-a-half after meeting Vega, the family — with the boys sporting new shoes and haircuts — met up at Bear Creek Park to talk about their change of luck. Kandalepas was even offered some maintenance work at the hotel where his family has been staying, and he found a painting gig.

“It’s been one small thing and then another. Right after Officer Vega helped us get into the hotel room, I heard a sound at the door. ... I opened it and there was a note that said someone had covered us for a week, and they left us a Fred Meyer gift card,” he said.

Watching their two boys play around Vega’s police car, the parents said they were at a loss for words.

“We were homeless in California and it felt like nobody cared. People would say they were helping us with their words and with their pen, but nothing was happening. We felt so desperate. We were on the street with our two boys, and it felt like we were in danger of things getting worse really fast,” Kandalepas said.

“You hear people talk about it taking a village to take care of everybody. I’ve never felt like we had a village before now.”

Sigafoos said the Rogue Valley and local police had restored her faith in humanity.

“It just gives me chills thinking about everything they’ve done for us. To think that a police officer would help us in the way that he has. It’s more than we could have ever expected,” she said.

“We didn’t feel like there was any hope before we got up here. Now it feels like we have a chance. It makes me really emotional.”

Vega said he was happy to see things improving for the family.

“Myself and other officers come across people on the Greenway and at the park every day, and there are few who want to be helped or want to put in the effort to improve their situation. They wanted the help. They just needed to be directed to where to get it,” Vega said, smiling as one the two boys inspected the items on his uniform belt.

“They’ve been given some resources and they are getting it done. Everybody goes through hard times, but the bottom line is we need to help each other out. Whether I’m a cop, or even in my personal life, whatever it is, if someone is trying to do good and just needs a little boost to get on their feet, it’s just the right thing to do.”

Donations toward permanent housing for the family can be made to Compassion Highway Project, earmarked “Florida family,” at compassionhighwayproject.org.

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneFour-year-old Caleb and 5-year-old Joshua ask about the gear on Medford police Officer Arturo Vega’s belt at Bear Creek Park, with their parents, Charlene Sigafoos and Demitrios Kandalepas.