GATHER 'ROUND, readers, for this tale of The Determined Mom and Her Dogged Attorney. It starts slow but ends with a bang. And if we could replicate it a few thousand times in Philly, we'd turn the city around.
The story begins in late 2005 when single-mom Lorna Laster was in a bind. She lived with her four kids in a rental house, on a nice West Philly street that felt like home. She worked full time but had gotten behind in her rent. The landlord was going to evict her.
"I did not want to leave my house," says Lorna, 50, a resident adviser and child-care coordinator at a Salvation Army women's shelter. "My kids would be displaced and I didn't want that for them. They liked their school. They had friends they were accustomed to. They felt pretty safe on the block. The neighbors looked out for them, and everyone from the mailman to the pastor of the church knew who they were. If we moved, they'd have to start over."
Laster was desperate to avoid a numbing scenario that plays out every day in this city: Mom raising kids alone hits a financial speed bump, loses her housing and finds digs in a new neighborhood only to repeat the cycle the next time the money runs out. Worst of all, her uprooted kids must continually adapt to new schools.
This is a no small thing, especially in Philly where the "student mobility" rate is as high as 50 percent in some schools - meaning half of the student body moves either into or out of the school in a given year.
"How can a school, let alone a district, find success with that churn?" asks school district spokesman Fernando Gallard. "The students are constantly moving to new schools where they don't know anyone, where the teachers don't know their strengths and weaknesses, and they fall behind."
While research has shown that high student mobility contributes to lower test scores and a higher dropout rate, Laster didn't need the research to know that moving her kids wouldn't be good for them. At her job, she witnesses every day its terrible impact. So she contacted Philadelphia VIP, a nonprofit that pairs indigent people with pro bono attorneys, for help to avoid eviction.
To her great fortune, she was placed into the caring hands of Steve Shoumer, now 34, who was then a new associate at Blank Rome specializing in real-estate law. He contacted the landlord, a woman who didn't want to evict Laster but who really needed the rent. Shoumer worked out a payment plan for Laster and assured the landlord that Laster would stick to it.
"I told the landlord to contact me if there were any issues," he says.
Well, there were - nothing huge, but sometimes the payments would be late. Shoumer counseled Laster, helped her figure out a budget, cheered her on when she found extra work to make ends meet.
"Basically, he was just in my corner," says Laster. "I was terrible at money management. He made me accountable. There were so many things I just didn't know."
Shoumer also asked the landlord to make needed repairs, a request Laster wouldn't have felt entitled to make while she was behind in the rent.
None of this happened overnight, by the way, but over years. Shoumer checked in with Laster even when he didn't have to.
"He'd call and say, 'I haven't heard from you in a while. How are you doing?' He seemed to sense when I needed moral support."
And that gave her the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other, especially on days when she was bone tired.
A few years ago, when Laster asked Shoumer how she might find the money to fix up the house, he told her that grants were available for low-income homeowners, not renters, to improve their properties. Maybe, he suggested, it was time to own a home, not rent one. But Laster had no savings, and her credit record, while improving, wasn't strong enough for a bank loan.
On Laster's behalf, Shoumer called the landlord. The woman confessed that she wanted to sell the home and would be willing to charge Laster only what remained on the mortgage, allowing her to pay it off via a rent-to-own arrangement, which Shoumer crafted. It took a few years, plenty of discipline and a lot of trust on the part of both Laster and the landlord. But by last November, the home was Laster's.
"I couldn't believe that the place I was once going to get kicked out of was now actually mine," says Laster, recalling the moment the landlord signed over the deed. "I said, 'I am going to go home and put this deed under my pillow. Tomorrow morning, if it's still there, I'll know this wasn't a dream.' "
It took eight years to come true, a lengthy amount of time for a pro bono relationship to persist, says Kelly Gastley, supervising attorney of Philadelphia VIP.
"We've had cases that last a while, but Steve built a really caring relationship with Ms. Laster," she says. "It made all the difference for her."
For Shoumer, too.
"Helping Lorna own her home is about the most satisfying work I've ever done as a lawyer," says Shoumer, who's handled some impressive cases in his career. He now considers Laster a friend. "I am so proud to know her. She worked really hard for this."
Laster hopes to use her experience to help the young mothers she works with at the Salvation Army.
"I want them to know that resources are available, and that people at VIP and people like Steve are out there to help," she says. "They really do care. If I can come this far, anybody can."
On Twitter: @RonniePhilly