Amber Fields Pennington, 37, once lived in a six-figure Laguna Niguel home, now she's coping with debt collectors, feeding her family from food banks and spending her time giving support to the Occupy OC movement.
"It really hit me when I had to take my 4-year-old to a food bank at a church. The pastor helped me to the car and asked if we could pray together. I cried so hard I could barely say 'Amen' with him. The humility that came over me at that moment was a gift, a gift of strength and wisdom, and motivation to fight the good fight," says the mother of two.
movement is now in full swing in Orange County with the recently granting permission for demonstrators to camp overnight at City Hall. As public attention grows for the movement, curiosity about its motives and goals grows, too.
While the protesters each bring their own, often very different agendas to the table, their overwhelming consensus is that financial misbehavior by the country's banking system and the wealthy elite is the cause of the nation's economic woes.
It is well known that the Occupy movement has thus far stayed clear of a specific mission statement, choosing instead to simply shine a light on the collective problems that the nation is facing as a whole.
While some have complained that this lack of focus makes the movement useless and ineffective, protester Fields-Pennington explains that simply bringing awareness to the problems they are facing is important, especially here, where the disparities between the wealthy and the poor are becoming more obvious.
Fields-Pennington explains why she joined the movement and her fight to make her struggles, and the struggles of her family known from behind the "Orange Curtain."
In this exclusive interview with Laguna Niguel Patch, she tells a now all-too-familiar story about a normal middle class family who was living the American Dream until the recent economic turmoil led to a struggle with their bank and financial disaster.
After losing their main source of income and then their home, they now face a harsh economic reality of living check to check, mounds of past due bills, and trips to the food bank to make ends meet. Yet Fields-Pennington remains upbeat—positive and full of energy—and says that the movement is giving her hope for her future, and her children's futures.
Laguna Niguel Patch.com: What drove you to become involved with the movement?
Amber Fields-Pennington: You know I used to be a comfortable Orange County mom with all the sense of entitlement that comes with it. But then the economic problems started. My husband was working as a sales representative for an alcohol distribution company, and people were starting to not buy liquor. The gas alone to keep up for his route was killing us, and that was spiking up like crazy, too.
Patch.com: So you lost some of your income?
Fields-Pennington: Well, the expenses went up at the same time. The DMV registration went up, and then our health premium went up to well over $300 month for just three of us, so we canceled that. All the while, my job was to try to run a household of four with only two sticks to rub together. I couldn't even afford food anymore!
Patch.com: What did you do to try to deal with your financial problems?
Fields-Pennington: We had planned on refinancing when in 2007 my husband lost his job. We still kept up with the payments and called the bank to try and work something out because we couldn't keep up for much longer. He was only out of work for three months, but we had spent our entire nest egg on the down payment for our home. Then he got a new job with wonderful benefits. We thought for sure, under the HAMP plan qualifications, we were going to be OK. That's when things got dark.
Patch.com: What went wrong?
Fields-Pennington: I pursued a loan modification only to realize that the system I was trying to work with was going to do everything they could to make sure I couldn't. They made the hoops impossible to jump through, or changed their requirements in mid process. I was denied more times than I can count, for absolutely ludicrous reasons sometimes. Usually paperwork errors, like staples, forgetting a dash in a column of a financial page, the color of the fax from their fax machines print.
New requirements would often come up out of nowhere. These were things they neglected to mention for months. Those months turned into years and I started to really lose my marbles, and everyone around me knew it. It was incredibly humiliating. My kids were getting older, and life was still going... but not mine. My purpose, every day was to save my nest, until I couldn't even remember why I was trying to save it anymore. No reason could be worth the pain this was causing me, my husband, my kids, and those around us who cared but couldn't help.
Patch.com: Did you have any other options?
Fields-Pennington: My other option was short sale, but our home worth had plummeted over $200,000. When I would request information from the bank on short sales, they would ask me to make a recorded statement that I was no longer interested in applying for a loan modification any longer, and was now pursuing short sale option from here on out. But I just wanted to get a straight answer about all of my options. That's how they funnel you and block you in. We stalled, but our past-dues became higher and higher.
I know if I was willing to lie that I could still be in our home, but I have to live with myself. I have to teach my children virtues, and this was and is a teachable moment, a forum to teach them why virtues are sometimes all we have. Whatever each day's lesson brings, I didn't want to end the day knowing I was a cheater or schemer, liar, or sneak.
Patch.com: What about those who say that this housing crash was caused by people who bought houses that they couldn't afford and banks that lent irresponsibly?
Fields-Pennington: My choices were limited with the timeframe we had to work with when we made the initial decision to buy our house. We had over $100,000 to put down, and we knew we had to invest it in real estate very soon. Our plans were to refinance after a little bit. We could afford the house, for a long time, no problem. Then my husband lost his job, and so did millions of others. That's when we could not afford it anymore; we had already invested our entire nest egg! We weren't taking out a second mortgage and living it up. We gave it our all. We thought it was the responsible thing to do, to invest in property. My husband got a new job at pretty much the same salary, but now that we were behind in our payments, we owed more and more of that income. At that point the price of everything else was going up as well—gas, DMV, food, etc... It was like we were slowly getting squeezed, tighter and tighter. We began to limit everything. I don't care what class level you are. If you have a plan that you are working for at all costs that gets de-railed to this extent—a person can't have that many come-backs in a lifetime.
Patch.com: How are you dealing with all of these changes?
Fields-Pennington: My parents have helped us a lot, plus other family here and there thank God. But my aunt lost her place about three years ago now and is homeless. Her two kids and my sister and her boyfriend each rented rooms. They were wandering for a while; some of them lived with us. My other aunt just lost her house like last month, and is renting a room somewhere, and her son who came to live with her after hitting bottom in Santa Cruz, is now displaced. I could go on and on.
It really hit me when I had to take my 4-year-old to a food bank at a church. The pastor helped me to the car and asked if we could pray together. I cried so hard I could barely say Amen with him. The humility that came over me at that moment was a gift, a gift of strength and wisdom, and motivation to fight the good fight.
We miss our old neighborhood. It was a small little tract and we were very tight knit. This year my kids want to go there to Trick-or-Treat. My sister is coming to take them because I'm just not ready to go back, I'm not ready yet. I miss the neighborhood kids the most, they were each so special to me. And of course the neighbors, they were extensions our family.
That's hurt our family dynamic a lot, but we are still grateful for how well things turned out. Not great, but no compromise of our family bond. Our core is going to be OK. In fact, better for it. I used to sit there, just crying. I felt like I was losing my mind. I never wanted all of the extra stuff like everyone else. I just wanted a home for my family—a garden. All of that other stuff didn't matter to me.
Finding this movement—it saved me. Look around here, at these people. He's a Veteran, that guy over there used to be wealthy. Now he's just trying to survive. They all have stories. They are all incredible. These stories, they need to be told.