As afternoon spills into evening in Sanford, a family makes a house a home. Dad Tom Metzger dusts, daughter Arielle sweeps, and son Austin scrubs.
Family to-do lists and the kids’ artwork adorn the walls. The family’s gentle giant of a Great Dane, Mercy, rests comfortably on a welcoming shaggy rug. The windows are open, and the cool January air breezes through and ruffles 15-year-old Arielle’s blonde hair.
She’s excited to show off her new room. Wallpapered with Twilight movie posters, her sanctuary is as bright and cheerful as she is. Atop her shelf lies a green Bible, on the desk textbooks and a scrunchie.
It could be a room of any teenage girl in Central Florida. But a teetering tower of white thank-you cards on her dresser offers a clue — Arielle Metzger is no ordinary girl.
Life can change dramatically in a very short time. Three years ago, Arielle and Austin’s biggest worry may have been about which comic book to read next. That was before they were faced with the realities of grown-up topics like finances, recession, and foreclosure.
After the economic crash, Tom, a carpenter, couldn’t find construction work. Before long, the family lost their home and were forced live in a now-famous yellow delivery truck.
“The floor of the truck was always ice-cold-even on the hottest day,” Arielle recalls. “If you had a soda that was hot, you could put it on the floor of the truck, give it a couple of minutes, it would be cold again.”
The family spent a lot of free time at the library. The kids would use the internet to do their homework. Arielle would work on two websites to help other struggling families, greensteak.info that featured coupons, and communityassistance.info that featured info on local services.
Before hard times hit, Tom purchased a family membership to the Lake Mary YMCA. When the family lost their home, it became more than a place to have fun. It became a place to shower.
On Fridays, Tom would find a spot in the back of the parking lot to park the family truck, and they spent the weekend there. Soon, the YMCA staff picked up on what the Metzgers were doing.
“At the beginning, they left us alone for the most part,” Arielle says softly. ‘Then the director found out. She called Beth.”
“We were caught,” Austin adds.
Beth is Beth Davalos, coordinator of the Families in Transition (FIT) program at Seminole County Public Schools. Timing is everything. If Beth had waited 10 minutes to approach the Metzger family at the YMCA, their lives would be completely different.
“We were actually getting ready to leave,” Arielle says. “We were planning to move to Daytona at that moment. If Beth would have waited a few more minutes, we would have been gone.”
But fate is always right on time. Beth not only helped the Metzgers get into a motel for a month, she also connected them with community services. But most significantly, she extended them an invitation — one that would change their lives forever.
Producers from CBS’ 60 Minutes had contacted Beth and were searching for families in Seminole County who lived in their cars or trucks. Beth asked the Metzger if they were willing to be interviewed.
“We held a family meeting,” Austin recalls. Tom asked his kids if they really wanted to share their story on national television, and they agreed to participate. The producers planned to come to Florida, and then had to cancel a few times.
When the family did come, they recorded hours and hours of footage of the Metzgers, in addition to several other families. Tom, Arielle, and Austin didn’t learn that they would actually be featured in the edited report until two days before it aired.
The deafening response to the report started just two minutes after it was televised.
“We were at the library and right after the program aired, four cars drove by looking for us,” Tom says.
That’s when the real adventure started. Phone calls came from as far away as the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.
“They told me, ‘Your kids didn’t just inspire Americans, they inspired us over here, too,’” Tom recalls. “My kids inspired the world.”
Letters arrived by the bagful.
“But the emails, oh my God, the emails!” Arielle says, wide-eyed, “There’s about 1,000, and we’re still sorting and answering them. Some people would get mad at us for not responding quickly enough, it was just so much.”
People invited the Metzgers to move in with them. They offered jobs to both Tom and Arielle, and tickets to an Orlando Magic Game. There was an opportunity to appear in a PSA with Dwight Howard. Three law firms offered Arielle paid internships. (“They offered her $15 an hour,” Tom says incredulously. “Do you know how rare it is to have a paid internship?”)
And the owner of New York-based Horizon Media provided six months funding for the family to move into the Metzgers’ current rental, and now they are being case managed by Pathways to Home, a program that helps homeless families work towards self-sufficiency.
The decision to participate in the interview was a smart one. So was a seemingly simple wardrobe choice. During the filming, Arielle chose to wear a green and grey Stetson T-shirt. While she can’t remember who gave it to her or when she received it, no one will ever forget what it did for the family.
STETSON STEPS UP
Tom wasn’t the only one to receive hundreds of calls after the interview. Phone lines were jammed at Stetson University in DeLand.
“It felt like destiny when we saw Arielle with a Stetson shirt on in the report,” remembers Rina Tovar, vice president of campus life and student success. “From our alumni and students to faculty and staff, everyone felt a connection to Arielle and Austin. Arielle, currently a freshman at Seminole High School’s International Baccalaureate Program, spoke like a Stetson student.”
The leadership team knew that they wanted to help the Metzgers. They thought that Arielle fit the profile for Stetson’s Bonner Scholars Program, an initiative that offers students access to education in exchange for an opportunity to serve. Stetson is the only university in Florida affiliated with the Princeton, N.J. based Corella & Bertram F. Bonner Foundation.
Bonner Scholars, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college, receive a financial aid package comprised of scholarships, grants, and loans, if needed, to attend Stetson. During their four years of study, the scholars volunteer for at least eight hours per week for a nonprofit organization.
Stetson decided to offer both Arielle and Austin full four-year financial packages — worth more than $360,000 for the two siblings.
“I was shocked, grateful, and really relieved when I found out,” Arielle says. “Knowing that Dad doesn’t have to pay for our college is the best part.”
University President Dr. Wendy Libby invited the Metzgers to visit Stetson, and the group participated in a live interview with The Early Show on CBS that airs on Saturday mornings. Stetson also introduced Arielle and Austin to several students mentors who volunteered to guide them throughout their academic journey.
“Arielle is exactly the type of student we try to recruit into the Bonner Program — one with a servant leader heart,” Rina says.
Arielle and Austin say that the reason they agreed to the 60 Minutes interview in the first place is because they thought it might help homeless families. There’s no way they could have known how many people would benefit from their decision.
GENEROSITY IS THE NEW BLACK
Beth Davalos grinned from ear-to-ear when she learned about the Stetson scholarship. Then the phone rang again.
After the news reports, she received thousands of calls and emails from people all over the world including Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Japan, and Great Britain. One marine called from Afghanistan to make a donation.
Monetary and in-kind donations following the Metzgers’ interview are estimated to total more than $1 million.
Since the news reports, FIT has opened 48 food pantries, largely sponsored by the local faith-based community. More than 100 churches, large food organizations, and individuals have donated to help fill the pantries, which offer information as well as providing food.
The churches are also offering volunteers who are trained to serve as resources advocates. These volunteers will be strategically placed at the different food pantry locations and at a location at Northland Church to help support families through the transition process. Families who are in transition themselves are motivated to help.
“One of the other little girls featured in the news report is now going through her belongings to pull items to donate,” Beth says.
The need will continue. Latest reports show that there are around 10,000 homeless children in Central Florida. Fom. November 2011 through January 2012, the FIT program staff along with the school social workers helped 42 families with emergency housing to avoid living on the streets.
“I have 1,417 homeless children in our program right now,” Beth says. “In between December and January, another 217 children became homeless. And this happened during the holidays, when landlords are typically kinder.”
Exactly what qualities as “homeless” is currently an issue being discussed by lawmakers. H.R. 32, The Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2011, had been introduced to amend the definition of “homeless person” to include certain homeless children and youth.
Currently, the HUD definition of homelessness doesn’t match the federal definition of homelessness. It leaves out some families who are living in motels or in someone else’s home due to economic hardship.
Beth invited the Metzger family to accompany her on a trip to Washington, D.C. with another homeless SCPS student who would be testifying at a Congressional hearing.
“When the speaker introduced us as the Metzger family, all the cameras Congressman Corrine Brown, Congressman John Mica, Senator Patty Murray, and Senator Tom Harkin. They also ate in the private cafeteria, and toured the Capitol building.
“Homelessness is a subset of poverty,” Beth says. “We have families in Seminole County who aren’t homeless, but are certainly struggling. We have to change the way we think about how we approach poverty as well as make giving a lifestyle.”
She encourages individuals and organizations to think about what they can offer, whether it be money, in-kind goods and services, or time and talent.
In a developing partnership, Stetson University’s Community-Based Research Program will send two students researchers to help FIT conduct its annual survey to find out what homelessness looks like today compared to last year and to study how the community is approaching homelessness. They will interview the parents, children, and local agencies.
These days, Arielle and Austin have become quite the pros when it comes to giving interviews, and while they are grateful for the celebrity status they’ve experienced, they just want to be kids. They want to focus on school, get used to their new neighborhood, and go to the movies.
If home is where the heart is, maybe the term “homeless” should be “houseless” or “shelterless” because the Metzger family never lost heart. They never lost their dignity, love, or strength as a united family. They always knew that giving to others is what makes a person truly rich.
Ashley Cisneros is a co-founder of Chatter Buzz Media, an Orlando Internet marketing firm that helps companies and organizations engage with their target markets through inbound marketing via the Internet. Chatter Buzz Media, which won the Social Madness competition for the Orlando small business market, is a full-service digital marketing firm specializing in website design, search engine optimization (SEO), social media marketing and content creation. Prior to founding Chatter Buzz, Ashley worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, technical writer, marketing manager, public relations practitioner and freelance journalist. To see Ashley’s content writing, visit www.ashleycisneros.com. You can also reach Ashley on her Google profile.