by Jim Boyle
Christine Ekberg recalls thinking she was a big shot.
She was a manager in the fraud division of Target Corp. She had bought the big home in St. Michael. Her family took yearly vacations. “And my children certainly did not worry about having food on the table,” she recalls.
Then this single mother of two boys fell ill in 2005 — only a few months after taking on the big mortgage. She began throwing up. She could no longer keep down food. “I thought I had cancer,” she says.
She was diagnosed with a painful disease called pancreatitis. She spent 60 percent of her days over the course of the next year in the hospital.
It didn’t take long and she couldn’t make her mortgage payment. By the end of 2006 she lost the home due to foreclosure.
The downward spiral would get much worse. She had begun dipping into retirement savings. Then she turned to pawn shops, selling most of the family’s possessions to “make ends meet.”
It was a rough couple of years for her and her youngest son, who was 8 when she first became ill. Her older son was 18 by then, and he found an apartment on his own.
Eventually, the single mother didn’t know where to turn. She began to contemplate sending her youngest son to live with a relative, while fighting off the notion of putting herself in a nursing home. “I’m not ready for that,” she declares.
About two years ago she awoke each day praying something would happen to put food on the table. Her memories are painful. She recalls standing in an aisle at the Salvation Army and telling her son she couldn’t afford an $1.85 item.
She remembers having her electricity shut off. She remembers her car was broken down. And then she suffered a stroke.
“I fell to my knees and prayed, not for myself but for my son, whose life had become so difficult and I hated that this poor guy had to watch his mother deteriorate.”
Then she discovered CAER, but she was admittedly leery at first. Her family had been exposed to efforts designed to help the needy that left them feeling less than worthy. She also had a dim view of the people who accessed food shelves. She thought they were for drug addicts and people who could work but chose not to work.
“I never said this out loud, but subconsciously it’s what I thought,” she said.
She soon learned how wrong she was. She has since fought off feelings of shame for how she treated food drives she took part in years ago.
“The drives seemed so separate from me,” she said. “I would give things we hadn’t eaten for a long time and think I was doing such a good deed. Now I look back and I’m sick about it.”
The people at CAER and countless people who give to CAER and/or volunteer at the Elk River food shelf treat it so much differently than that.
“CAER does things in a way that I don’t feel shame,” Ekberg said. “I don’t feel like I have go into some big explanation, and I still have my pride when I leave there.”
Ekberg lives on Social Security. She makes $17,000 a year. The majority of that goes to rent, leaving little for other expenses.
CAER has been the answer to her prayers.
It has put food on the table. She has had heat and electricity. She says it has clothed her, as she tugs on a sweater she’s wearing. Her car got fixed. She has gotten a gas card when she didn’t have enough gas in her tank to get home. She and her son have gotten books to read. And the people who work there have become her friends.
“It’s very humbling to go in anywhere and say you need help,” she said. “CAER was our last stop. I don’t know what we would have done.”
Her disease has gone into remission, but her health is still poor. But her dignity remains intact. Ekberg volunteered to be interviewed by the Star News out of her desire to thank CAER.
“So many communities could learn from them,” she said. “As for the food, it’s what a person would get for themselves at a grocery store. You can put together healthly and nutritious meals for your family.”
There’s not just Hamburger Helper and items that once sat in people’s cupboards for years.
In the summer, farmers and community gardeners donate fresh vegetables.
“They’re doing something wonderful for families that maybe didn’t know where their next meal was going to come from,” Ekberg said. “Really, CAER is keeping families together.”
Many of the blessings are less tangible, like the relationship Ekberg has with her son.
It used to be she bought things for her son that all the other kids had to compensate for areas of her parenting that she felt were lacking.
“Things are nice to have, but love and spending time together is much more important,” Ekberg says. “My youngest has gone through a lot with me on this journey. But he’s grown into this kid with so much compassion that sometimes he just blows my mind.”
The mother and son like to watch movies together, either ones they pick up inexpensively at the Salvation Army or at the $2 theater in Maple Grove. They also like to cook and bake together. They recently took a trip to Garrison. “He had never seen Lake Mille Lacs frozen over,” she said.
They go to church together and even do Bible studies at home together.
“My son and I have a much healthier relationship than we would have,” she said.
Her eyes well up with tears. Happy tears.
“I can’t express enough the gratitude I have toward CAER and the kindness they have shown me,” Ekberg said. “CAER has given us back what no one else could.
“We may not have a computer, cable television, fancy phones or take vacations, but we no longer worry about where our next meal is coming from and we know that someone out there cares.”
To read about CAER’s March food drive, click here.