Ella Richardson, 67, worked for a collection agency at one point in her life, so she knows the importance of a good credit rating. And although she’s been through many hard times — including bankruptcies and foreclosures — she has always been able to get her score back to where it needed to be.
But in September, when her husband, Thomas — whom everyone called “Butch” — died, she had “two-odd dollars” in her bank account and no way to pay bills. She saw years of hard work going down the drain, and knew she needed help.
Richardson grew up in Roanoke. As a child, she brought home good grades and never missed a day of school. Despite the opportunities that might have offered her, she said, the only thing she ever wanted to be was a mother. So when she got pregnant at 15, halfway through 9th grade, she quit school and married her baby’s father. They later had another child.
“I love my children,” she said, but motherhood was not what she hoped it would be. Her husband was abusive from the beginning, and and it took her 12 years to break away from him. “It was not a good marriage,” she said.
Once he was gone, it was up to Richardson to support herself and her children alone. Because she had stayed home with them, she’d never held a paying job. When she took a course on preparing for interviews, she said, she was offered the choice of signing up for a GED class or taking the test right away. She decided to go ahead and take the test, and after being out of school for 15 or 20 years, “I passed it the first go-‘round.”
At her first job interview, she was told she was too inexperienced to be hired, but managed to talk her way into the position.
“I asked how I was going to get experience if I was never hired,” she said.
During the next decade, Richardson worked as a secretary in a neonatal ICU and an X-ray department. In between, she filled in with “little jobs that kept me working.”
Richardson said she enjoyed her work. “I love meeting people of all kinds.”
But in 1994, just days after her 40th birthday, she suffered consecutive heart attacks, and has been receiving Supplemental Security Income payments since.
She met Butch in 1986, while they were both inpatients in a rehabilitation facility.
“It’s an unusual and odd story,” she said.
He was battling alcoholism and she was being treated for anxiety. They spent a lot of time talking, she said, and in just a few months, “we were really good friends.”
The relationship eventually deepened, and the couple had 35 years of marriage together.
“When you saw one of us, you saw both of us,” she said.
Until the end, when Richardson was trying to encourage him to take up a more healthy lifestyle, she said, “we never had an argument during our whole marriage. I never thought that was possible.”
The two managed to live well enough on both their incomes, even buying two houses, but lost both when they faced economic setbacks.
Butch had health problems of his own. Three years after their marriage, he was struck by a car. His legs were shattered from the knee down, she said, and against his doctors’ advice, he refused to have them amputated. Instead, he dragged himself around on his arms for two years, raking leaves while sitting down, and making stairs out of paint cans to reach his work bench. By the next year, Richardson said, he had learned to walk again, and he went back to work.
“He couldn’t sit still,” Richardson explained.
But Butch only made it a few years until his injuries sidelined him again and he went on disability permanently. Still, the couple was able to live comfortably.
“We were just used to living that way,” Richardson said. “It kind of got us to live frugally. We didn’t want for things.”
In February, Butch, who had several chronic ailments, was hospitalized after an abdominal aneurysm paralyzed his legs. He was never well after that, Richardson said.
In September, the couple went to a family reunion, and for the first time in a while, she said, he seemed to be more himself.
“We had a wonderful day,” she said. “We were so happy.”
When they went to bed that night, she said, nothing seemed amiss. But something woke her in the early hours of the morning, and when she reached out to Butch in the dark, he was unresponsive. The paramedics came, and confirmed that he had died — slipping quietly away while next to her in bed.
Richardson had only a week or two to mourn before she had to face the reality that, without his income, she couldn’t afford to pay rent on their place herself. Her daughters assisted her as much as they could with other bills, she said. “I tried everything to get help from other avenues,” she said, and she knows they intend to help her later in life.
Her younger daughter suggested she go to Roanoke Area Ministries. There, she was given a grant toward the rent from the Emergency Financial Assistance Program, which is supported by the Roanoke Times’ Good Neighbors Fund. RAM’s caseworkers were able to find other charities to make up the rest, so Richardson was able to pay her bill in full for October.
“I think God puts people in your path,” she said about the help she got from RAM.
“I believe in Jesus, and I prayed and prayed. God never gives you anything that’s too great for you. I will never forget who my maker is.”
But as much as Richardson appreciated the assistance, it still left her with no way to make car or utility payments, and RAM can only help once a year.
Immediately after Butch’s death, she went to Roanoke’s Social Services office and applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. She filed to receive Butch’s Social Security payments, and because he was a veteran, she checked into whether she was eligible for a pension. She was told she likely would be receiving some of those benefits by November, but even one month of getting behind on the bills was hard for her to contemplate.
“I’ve tried all my life to keep my credit straight,” she said, tearing up.
Richardson also planned on moving to a place where she could pay less rent, she said, but finding a place that as both cheap enough and safe enough for her to live alone has proved challenging.