People in upscale communities like Bainbridge Island often hide their trials the most fervently. But they are not immune to loss and hardship. Look around any neighborhood on the Island and you will see houses lost to foreclosure and families struggling to get by. The isolation and shame of hiding one’s troubles often adds to the problem and makes recovery more difficult.
What Andrea Mackin, Director of the Bainbridge Downtown Association, told her four children each year when they prepared clothing donations for our local charity organization Helpline House echoed powerfully after her husband lost his job in 2009: “All those years we bagged clothes I told my kids, ‘your school mates might wear these.'” It wasn’t long before the Mackin family themselves would need to seek assistance from Helpline.
When the economy tanked, like so many businesses Mackin’s husband’s international art business suddenly lost everything: “He had work with hotels booked for a year that just evaporated,” Mackin explained.
Without her husband’s income, Mackin and her family could no longer afford their mortgage and faced losing their home, which had been featured on both the Bainbridge Home Tour and Garden Tour. “It wasn’t ostentatious. It was beautiful and unique. There was an artist studio for my husband. It was on 3 acres in the Rolling Bay neighborhood. We put so much into the place. We thought we’d be there forever,” said Mackin.
“We tried a loan modification program. We leveraged everything we had. We were faced with paying the mortgage or buying groceries. . . . In the end it all fell apart. I know how to advocate. But the system was just broken, and all the best advice didn’t work for us,” she explained. “Sometimes things are broken beyond repair.”
“It was like that game Sorry when you’re sent back,” said Mackin. No one actually said sorry to Mackin and her family. When hard times hit, apologies are rare—and usually irrelevant. After trying everything they could think of, the Mackins went into foreclosure and walked away from their home.
Mackin said. “I wouldn’t have planned to start over at this point in our lives. . . . I first went to Helpline House for assistance to cover sports team expenses for my kids. But I realized that our family qualified for more help, that we were exactly who it’s there for. We had four wheels on the ground but were sliding fast. . . . Helpline was there.”
Although her family qualified for Helpline House assistance, accepting it proved difficult for Mackin. “It was mostly my own judgment of myself. I didn’t feel I was in need enough. And as we accepted help, I felt I shouldn’t enjoy my life, shouldn’t be seen at Casa Rojas Express celebrating a birthday.” It wasn’t until a Helpline House Counselor told Mackin that accepting help doesn’t mean you stop living your life that she felt permission to find ways to be happy.
As the Mackin family was losing their home and relocating to a rental in Winslow, downtown businesses were struggling to keep up with the “Great Recession.” In 2011, extensive road work hurt Winslow sales even more: “I felt this double responsibility of helping downtown businesses. I know what it feels like to close a business. I’m even more invested in making sure businesses here make it through,” Mackin said.
Mackin told me most people had no idea what was happening to her family, but those who did had mixed responses. “Our kids’ sports teams and coaches were so gracious and supportive. It was important for them to have the continuity of staying on their teams, and scholarships made that possible. Friends also helped keep things normal for the kids,” explained Mackin. But other community reactions were not so gracious. Mackin said some people treated her with condescension, and her kids dealt with teasing on the school bus. A commenter in an Island newspaper said that Mackin was unfit for her job as director of downtown because she was going through foreclosure. “Another article [in the same paper] about the plight of artists in the economic downturn mentioned my husband’s failed business,” said Mackin. “It wasn’t intended to be, but it was mortifying.”
Mackin said it was painful for her kids to lose the house they grew up in, and they still worry about money. Her 14-year-old son mowed lawns to help pay for groceries. “I still owe him for that.”
But things have stabilized for the family. Mackin’s husband has a good job. “That tight feeling in the pit of my stomach is gone now, partly because we hit bottom and found that we could survive,” said Mackin. “We’re heading into our second Christmas now in our rental. I grieve at different times, especially for my kids, but they have done great. . . . They have taken it on as the next adventure. I hope in time we can lighten that load for them in terms of worries about money.”
Mackin continued, “But if this was our challenge it wasn’t that bad. We’re not heroes for having gone through this. I’m just always amazed that life gives you what you need.”
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Photos courtesy of Andrea Mackin, Helpline House, the BI Downtown Association, and Sarah Lane.