Nobody Succeeds Alone
When Silver Spring’s Katie Guzzey ran into tough times, her “adopted families” rallied around her
Katie Guzzey was raised “in a tiny little house on a very big hill” on Dewey Road in Wheaton by her mother, Marsha, an office manager at a high-tech firm. She was 15 in 2009 when the recession hit, throwing Marsha out of work and the family into crisis. “We went into a lot of debt, we were just trying to make ends meet, but it wasn’t until after she lost her job that I truly knew what poverty was,” Katie recalls.
They turned to county agencies for help, and “we were pushed around all over the place,” she says. Then a social worker took the time to really understand the family’s plight. “She let my mom speak freely and for herself,” Katie says. “She didn’t decide anything for her, she didn’t judge.”
Those sessions led the Guzzeys to emergency services like free food boxes and reduced heating bills. And the social workers Katie met made a lasting impression. “I liked the culture of social work, which is all about connection, being connected to resources, to community,” she says. “I felt like that was something I wanted to do.”
This spring she graduated with top honors and a degree in social work from the UMBC program at the Universities at Shady Grove (USG). At 25, she works at Interfaith Works Empowerment Center, a nonprofit serving the homeless in Silver Spring, and some of the social workers who helped her family years ago are now colleagues.
“In some ways it was sad,” Katie tells me, that such difficult life experiences made her realize “what I’m good at.” But as the years have passed, she’s learned to “use that pain and turn it into power.”
Katie has endured a lot of pain to reach this point. Her father was mostly absent when she was young and lacked the “emotional strength to support a family,” she says. With few relatives in the area, young Katie feared the times when she fought with her mother: “I always tell people that the worst punishment for a child of a single mom who has no siblings is to be ignored, because you’re so lonely in that house.”
In her loneliness she reached out to her neighbors, mainly Hispanics from Central America. She calls them her “adopted families” and explains: “That means going to their houses on Sundays to watch football, making chili-cheese dip, telling weird stories, playing games, ragging on each other. I learned a lot about what family really means, a sense of community and connection to people, because I didn’t have that when I was little.”
Even when Marsha still had a job, money was tight. Katie recalls the time when she was entering middle school, and a classmate told her that if she didn’t wear a certain kind of shoe she’d get beaten up. She came home, confronted her mother and demanded they go to Kmart and buy the footwear. “When my mom saw how expensive they were, she was like, ‘Katie, we can’t do that,’ and I was like, ‘We have to have them, I’m gonna get beat up!’ ” Eventually they settled on “some knockoff brand” and Katie remembers, “I could watch the heartbreak in my mom’s eyes, the fact that she couldn’t buy these things for me.”
The Guzzeys kept slipping downward. Marsha stopped paying the mortgage and the bank started to foreclose. The teenager used money she made working at a day care center to pay the electric bill. The day of her senior prom at Wheaton High School, Katie begged her mother to turn on the air conditioning for just 10 minutes so she could stop sweating and get dressed. “We were leaning on each other just to stand up straight, and it was hard,” Katie recalls.
Then Marsha couldn’t stand up anymore. She was diagnosed with liver disease in the fall of 2011 and a few months later she collapsed. Katie, then 18, called the paramedics. Three days later, she made the decision to take her mother off life support. “In my heart, I knew that’s what she would have wanted,” Katie says. “There was something in me that just knew.”