Month’s rent puts family back on track

Growing up in a poor family with seven siblings, Shelley Grayson knew she could never afford to go unemployed for long.

As soon as she could start working at 15 1/2 years old, Grayson was hired by Kentucky Fried Chicken. She worked throughout her undergraduate years at UC Davis, even flunking an academic quarter so she could keep her 50-hour workweek.

“I have always taken care of myself, I’ve always been independent,” said Grayson, a 28-year-old Oakland native.

But that independence was threatened in November 2010 when she was let go after 10 years with KFC from her job as a manager in Oakland, leaving her fiance, Robert Mitchell Jr., the only one with an income to support their then-2-year-old son, Robert. And when Mitchell was furloughed from his job as a food service worker at UC Berkeley from May through August this year, the couple was in danger of getting evicted after falling behind on rent for their two-bedroom apartment in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood.

“There’s no furniture in here – we had to get rid of it just to make ends meet,” Mitchell said, pointing to a bare living room. “It was very nerve-racking.”

That’s when they reached out for help, ultimately receiving a Season of Sharing grant in September to pay their delinquent rent.

“This was the boost to get us back on our feet,” Mitchell said.

Brittney Frye, an intake specialist at Alameda County Social Services Agency who submitted the couple’s Season of Sharing application, said Mitchell and Grayson’s hardworking nature made them stand out.

“They just fell on hard times,” she said. “I think they just needed that push.”

On her wall, Grayson proudly displays her degree in dramatic arts and academic awards from UC Davis, where she walked across the stage with her newborn son on graduation day in 2008. She’s determined to go back to school and become a physician.

Mitchell also wants to further his education. He thought the furlough would be a perfect opportunity to take psychology classes at Heald College, but he says the financial aid checks he was counting on never came that summer.

Even as they feared losing their apartment all summer, the couple said they never let the stress affect their son Robert, now 4.

“He’s so happy-go-lucky; he’s just happy to have me and his dad together,” Grayson said. “He talks up a storm.”

“The opposite of me,” Mitchell noted.

The assistance has given Mitchell and Grayson, who have another baby on the way, a more stable financial footing. Both are now working full-time serving food at UC Berkeley, and they plan to get married on New Year’s Day, the eight-year anniversary of the day they first met.

The couple says they’ve learned an important lesson from their ordeal: Always plan ahead.

“We know this isn’t going to happen again,” Grayson said, referring to the financial lifeline from Season of Sharing. “It taught us the importance of saving.”