Photograph by: NICK PROCAYLO , PNG

When Claudia Cajar came to Canada in 1996 at the age of 14 with her father the future was filled with hope.

It quickly withered.

A year later she was abandoned. Her father returned to Panama leaving her behind.

“I ended up with family services and was put in a group home,” said Cajar. “It wasn’t a nice place.”

Without realizing it — at the tender age of 15 — she had stepped on to the down escalator in life and its straight trajectory into poverty.

Today at the age of 32 — and the mother of a young son — she is still there.

However, thanks to the intervention of the Mom2Mom Child Poverty Initiative Society, she might just be putting her foot on the up escalator for the first time in her adult life.

Dr. Barbara Fitzgerald, a pediatrician and a co-founder of M2M said: “Two weeks ago Claudia said to me ‘I became an adult yesterday. I’m budgeting and my fridge is full of food and I’ve paid all my bills. And my stress is way down.’”

If such introspection was a long time coming it could be argued that privation seldom provides the opportunity for self-contemplation among those whose lives — like Cajar and her son’s — are lived in chaos.

The story of her life from 15 to 32 is one of unspectacular poverty, a weary experience of disappointments, despair and isolation which many single mothers on social assistance would recognize.

Cajar would not finish high school, dropping out in Grade 11 from Vancouver Tech and then living on her own when she aged out of foster care.

“I got jobs here and there. Lots of cleaning jobs and then I met my son’s father and became pregnant. But I packed up and left him after my son was born because he was physically abusive. I moved to Victoria to get away and get a fresh start.”

A fresh start was essentially becoming homeless with a newborn and ending up in a women’s transition home in Victoria, then semi-dependent living while she applied to get into B.C. Housing.

Cajar is intelligent, fluent in both Spanish and English and is not afraid of hard work.

Once she was established in an apartment by B.C. Housing she had someone look after her child while she worked at two jobs.

“In the morning I worked in a hotel, came home for half an hour to eat with my son then I’d go off to my next job. I needed two jobs because he needed diapers and clothes and it’s expensive.”

But as she’d never been taught the importance of budgeting she would eventually find herself in arrears with the rent and then there were all the calls made by the police to her apartment during visits by her son’s father.

“In the end they asked me to leave. I lost everything we had and we came back to Vancouver.”

With nowhere else to go she moved in with her abusive partner.

“I knew I was putting myself at risk. It only lasted a couple of months and we ended up in a woman’s shelter.”

What followed was a hopeless sequence of moving from one place to the next, staying with friends — her father even reappeared for a while before vanishing again — bouts of homelessness and spells in emergency shelters in Vancouver or North Vancouver.

In 2012 she was given a B.C. Housing apartment in East Vancouver.

She moved in with just a mattress, a couple of dishes and a small table.

“It broke my heart when my son said ‘mommy are we going to stay here forever.’”

In an effort to break out of poverty she took a $15,000 student loan, at which point her social assistance was cut off, and signed up to attend a private Surrey college to be trained as a dental assistant.

This fell apart after three months when she missed classes because her son was sick and it became a struggle to get to school and have her child looked after.

By now her depression at the state of her life had caused a serious deterioration in her relationship with her son whose behaviour became alarming.

In a world full of people they only had each other for consolation but poverty took even that away.

“I would go into my room and stay there by myself and he would stay in his room by himself. It’s no wonder he did what he did trying to destroy the house.”

It was while seeking help from a school counsellor for her son that Cajar was put in touch with M2M.

“I had a meltdown. My hydro had been cut off I didn’t know what I was going to do when the counsellor said there were some women who could help. I was scared at first to meet them but the next day they had the hydro turned on.”

Her M2M mentors, Pascaline Deublyden and Elyse Therrien, have taken the stress out of her life, she said.

“I’m stronger now and my son is doing a lot better. I lost myself along the way. Being homeless kills you and now I’m starting to get the poison out.”

Deublyden, who runs her own translating company, said helping Cajar was a matter of building her strength step by step through a combination of financial and emotional support, letting her know she’s not alone.

“It’s a matter of giving her a feeling of stability, taking the stress off so that she can go forward.”

M2M currently has over 90 volunteers who mentor 32 mothers and 55 children and is seeking $11,000 from The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School campaign to be used to buy food and meet the basic needs of 20 more families that the organization has been asked to help.

“I believe we are keeping children out of foster care,” said Fitzgerald, a clinical associate professor at UBC.

“It’s not just a matter of giving these moms financial help or things they need, the emotional help is just as important. But we do need more funds to help those 20 families. Often when we first visit them we find there is no food in the house,” said Fitzgerald.

Cajar wants to find work. She had applied for a cleaning job at a senior’s residence but failed to get it because she didn’t have a first aid certificate.

Getting that qualification is her next goal.

She would ultimately like to become qualified as a care aide assistant but that will take $3,000 and six months study at Vancouver Community College.

All that’s in the future, for now she’s thankful her son is happy.

“Just seeing that strength from him makes me try even harder to get where we want to go.

“It’s never too late to redeem myself.”

For more information on M2M visit www.m2mcharity.ca. For online donations to The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund Adopt-a-School initiative go to vansunkidsfund.ca

gbellett@vancouversun.com