The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 1, 2013

Andra Bryan Stefanoni: Man remembered for fight to keep family together despite homelessness

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer

PITTSBURG, Kan. — “Life can change at the drop of a hat.”

Pat Valdez told me that one night last November as we sat on straight-backed chairs in the homeless shelter on North Pine Street. We faced each other, knees just inches apart. He was trying to get comfortable telling a complete stranger how he and his family had become homeless; I was trying to get comfortable asking him about it.

On Sept. 14, Valdez, then 44, his wife, Karey, and stepdaughter, Sami Halmai, 8, found themselves standing with their suitcases outside the shelter, wondering how they got there.

Having worked in various construction jobs, Pat had been laid off, and Karey soon lost her job at a local fast-food restaurant.

“I didn’t feel like a man,” Pat told me, looking down at his hands clasped in his lap. “The thing that tore me up the most was seeing the hopelessness in my wife’s eyes. I don’t want to see that again, ever.”

As is typical at the shelter, they were given 90 days in which to find housing. Their deadline was Dec. 14.

“When I used to hear the word ‘homeless,’ I had a whole different picture in my mind,” Pat told me that night.

In some ways, Pat told me, their stay at the shelter made their life better than before. Because they had no TV in their room, he and his wife began reading more. So did Sami. They walked together to the nearby library, which they had never visited before.

“We were always close, but this brought us together to where we know we work as a unit,” Pat told me. “Karey is my teammate, my wife, my best friend.”

A chance meeting with a local landscaper netted Pat a seasonal job. He said he was proud to be earning money again.

“It felt so great, not having to ask my sister or someone for help, to bring home money I could support my family with,” he said. “I have dignity now because I am working all day, and that feels good. I’m proud. I’m exhausted, dirty from head to toe. But proud.”

Pat had an arrest record and had made some poor choices, a local church pastor who ministered to recovering addicts later told me. But Pat seemed determined to make a fresh start. His story stuck with me for some time. I called him a few weeks later to check in. How was he doing? Had they found housing?

He told me he was close to getting his life back on track. He also said he hoped to use their experience as an illustration for Sami.

“I want her to learn how to budget and to inspire her to go to college to enhance her chances of employment,” Pat said. “Life can change at the drop of a hat.”

I made a mental note to call him again in the spring, hoping he would have positive news to share. Last Wednesday, my heart sank when I opened the newspaper and read the obituaries.

I attended his funeral Saturday afternoon, a small, simple ceremony at Countryside Christian Church that was attended by close family. Some of them spoke of the hard life Pat had lived, of his struggles to keep his family together. I learned that his dream to again live with his family in a home of their own had never materialized. But others shared recollections of the brighter parts of his life, like his legendary sense of humor and his practical jokes, and they pledged to keep those happier memories alive.

Pat’s story doesn’t have the happy ending I had hoped for. But it was evident he leaves behind people who love him, miss him and will remember him.

FOLLOW ANDRA STEFANONI on Facebook at facebook.com/andrajournalist and on Twitter @AndraStefanoni.