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From Riches to Struggles: Occupy O.C. Mom Tells Her Story

Laguna Niguel resident Amber Fields-Pennington explains her motives for joining the movement and the bright future that she hopes to gain for her children.

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.

Elizabeth Gaitanis November 01, 2011 at 04:07 PM
Yes, we all have stories that are not being heard and should be! There must be a way to revive the "American Dream". Thank you for speaking up Amber Fields-Pennington!
D'Marie Mulattieri November 01, 2011 at 11:15 PM
I met Amber and her family at our first Occupy Orange County CA march on Saturday, October 15th. You did a great job of covering her story and helping people understand why we are so passionate about this movement.
Debbie L. Sklar (Editor) November 02, 2011 at 01:15 AM
Elizabeth: I would have to agree with you.
Debbie L. Sklar (Editor) November 02, 2011 at 01:16 AM
D'Marie: A big thanks to journalist Debbie Tharp for bringing this global story down home to Laguna Niguel so well.
Sue Hartman November 02, 2011 at 03:37 AM
Fields-Pennington is missing the forest for the trees. I have been in her shoes at two different times for different reasons, both times we buckled down, cut our losses accepted help from church, family and friends and eventually got back on our feet. I also have 4 children and sacrificed a lot! I washed my own diapers, we had one broken down car, no phone, no cable, tiny house but we were happy to be working toward the future. We didn't stand on street corners begging for sympathy. Far more people have gone through far worse than me! What Fields-Pennington is missing is that those above mentioned people are the ones who saved her and rightfully so. 'Occupying' a park at tax payer expense is not helping her plight. Nor is demanding more government intervention. Contrary to niave thinking, the OWS is about 'fundamentally transforming' America. Marxist/Socialist policies have never, ever worked anywhere, anytime. The most free economies have the most prosperous people. I beg people like Fields-Pennington to get over the loss of your perfect O.C housewife life, go help someone dealing with far worse than you and join the fight for more freedom to succeed and less government regulation that is the real killer of jobs here. Look at Greece and Europe, Socialism fails. Only free market capitalism under a Constitutional Republic is the real social justice. Go stand in front of Gov. Brown's office, he's leading the way over the cliff.
Chris Canlas November 02, 2011 at 07:09 AM
I'm Chris Canlas, the person who took that photo - behind the camera and a supporter of the world wide occupation. Thank you for covering this story as I was touched by it myself that same day I took the photo. If you would like to get a better copy of that picture please let me know at Raintracks1521@gmail.com. I never thought that one of my pictures would get published. Again, Patch.com thank you so much.
Debbie Tharp November 02, 2011 at 04:09 PM
Sue, I appreciate your readership and your comments. While I do understand your point that "Only free market capitalism under a Constitutional Republic is the real social justice" one hundred percent, I think that you may have missed the general point of the story, and that of course would be my fault, as I am the writer. A friend said to me that it would be nice to demonstrate that the people involved in the occupy movement do in fact have one thing in common, and that is anger toward a banking system that seems to be failing to enact policies that were set in motion to help our flagging economy.This conversation was in response to a news report that claimed only 1/7th of the money set aside to help struggling homeowners has actually been used for this purpose. I saw Amber's story as a perfect example of just WHY that money has not yet been distributed as set forth in administrative policy, and I admire her courage for speaking out, even though she expressed fear that she and her family would face attacks from those who do not understand what she is trying to say. I find her to be a responsible citizen, a remarkably intelligent person, and I see her family working hard to keep the fabric of their lives and the core of their family in tact and strong in the face of their economic hardship. Also, I couldn't really add to the article the fact that her children are incredible, because that is editorializing, but they are...so she is obviously doing something right.
Debbie Tharp November 02, 2011 at 04:11 PM
chris, it's a great photo. my editor definitely wants a higher res copy. votedebbie@yahoo.com is my email to have it uploaded. and if you'd like to send in more, we'd love that too! Thanks for letting us use it :)
Sue Hartman November 02, 2011 at 05:41 PM
Debbie, I have no doubt about Amber's integrity as a person and I know her pain very well. My point is her focus and actions are all wrong. Your statement shows your own lack of investigation. Dig a little deeper into this mess. Banks are in trouble becuase certain congressmembers are using them to line their own pockets. It's like a vicious cycle with the average person left holding the bag and paying higher taxes. "Rich people" and bankers are not the issue here, a 'seizing control' government is the problem. Banks are reacting to the regulations and uncertainty. If the OWS people are really so concerned with integrity, freedom and justice then they should be at Tea Party rallies not these encampments that they trash and don't pay for. We have story after story of the seedy elements at these encampments, maybe not so much at luxurious Irvine but they are everywhere else - garbage, thieves, drug dealers, rapists, KKK, Nazi party, Communist Party, Socialist Party, SEIU, ACORN, AFL/CIO. This is not how Americans behave. We don't stand on street corners looking for sympathy and siding with thugs who want to tear down our country. We fight for rule of law, decency, our Constitution. Kind of what you find at a Tea Party Rally, but that answer is not acceptable because the media has portrayed us as bad. The anger needs to be directed at our current administration who is basically using green jobs failing companies as a money laundering scheme for friends and supporters
Debbie Tharp November 02, 2011 at 07:06 PM
Sue, I am merely showing a different side of the story. There are a wide variety of news topics available about this subject, and they tend to all show very different angles. Showing a different angle from your own opinion, however, is not lack of research. Here, we are expanding the story on a personal level from the perspective of one of our own residents. It is not my place to take sides in this dog, fight, but merely to provide a forum and background for everyone else's courteous discussion. I may or may not agree with your viewpoints (you would be quite surprised about some) but I do admire the courage and tenacity of anyone willing to stand up and tell their own story amidst such a hot public debate. As you said, I have seen some of these seedier elements myself, as I have been to several different Occupy rallies in the state, but I also see great citizens like Amber who are working hard and struggling to survive in the worst economic disaster I have seen in my entire life. I would caution you against the policy of guilt by association, as this leads to polarization of a topic and cuts short the public debate that should be taking place right now between both like and different minded citizens. It is all to easy to lash out and dehumanize a group and instantly dismiss their credibility, and this is why it is important to put a human face and the movement so that we all remember that we are neighbors.
Debbie Tharp November 02, 2011 at 07:13 PM
One more point Sue, and then I will step out of this discussion as it is really not my place to spout my own political opinions here. Lest you accuse me of bias toward the Occupy members, I ran for 70th assembly district here last year with support from TEA Party members, Ron Paul supporters, and the Libertarian Party (I am a registered Libertarian.) As I said, it's news, an open forum for a great public debate that should be taking place, and I for one, want to be able to understand this issue from both sides of the fence. I encourage activism in whatever form, because disagreement is the basis of a healthy public dialog and a healthy democracy. But your opinion is duly noted. I should like to see one of our fellow readers answer it.
Sue Hartman November 02, 2011 at 08:42 PM
Debbie, thank you for the clarification. I agree that you are just pinpointing one person's life and story that represent so many in this crises. I made the lack of research comment because it appeared you were placing sole blame on the banks and no where else. If that is not the case, then I apologize. I don't hold any animosity toward you or Amber, I'd rather have you both on 'our side'! No, we should not generalize or categorize but people do judge others by the friends they make. If someone says they want integrity, freedom and sticking with our Republic ruled by Consitutional rule of law than they shouldn't be joining forces with Communist/Socialist/Marxist/Nazi/SEIU/ACORN thugs. That is all the point I wanted to make. I'll also bow out and leave the rest of commenting to others.

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