As Tammy Shaffer lit her daughter Alexa’s birthday cake Friday, she realized she had many things to be thankful for this year.
Three months ago, Tammy Shaffer and her daughters, Amanda Shaffer, 7, and Alexa Shaffer, 6, spent their days walking the streets of Leesburg and their nights bouncing from hotel to motel.
"I left my ex-husband to get a better life," Tammy Shaffer said. "There is nothing more painful than not knowing where your kids are going to sleep."
TWO YEARS AGO, Shaffer lived in a house in Reston with her husband, son and two daughters. After repeated acts of domestic violence, Shaffer left her husband for the last time.
"I began to think about my daughters. They are going to be women someday. I cannot let them think that is OK. That was what I was teaching them," Shaffer said. "My kids saved my life. They made me get out."
Shaffer left her house in Reston to make a better life for her daughters.
"I was doing everything I knew how to do. I wanted so badly to do everything I could for my daughters," she said. "It seemed like I was doing the opposite."
On a hot day in August, Shaffer piled her daughters into a Leesburg telephone booth.
"It was hot and my kids were starving," Shaffer said. "I called Janice King at the Good Shepherd Alliance."
The Good Shepherd Alliance, a nonprofit Christian organization, provides emergency housing and support for Loudoun County residents who are homeless. The Alliance’s Janice King helps residents find temporary places to stay.
"They saved my soul because I was hurting so bad. I was torn down," Shaffer said. "Janice came and got us, put us in the back of her blue car. That was the first time I felt safe in two years. I actually slept that night. It was like, ‘Oh, thank you God.’"
The Shaffer’s live in one of the Good Shepherd Alliance’s shelters in Leesburg.
They sleep together in one room. Shaffer’s closet door is adorned with inspirational quotes and reminders.
"This place has meant so much to us," Shaffer said. "Any family needs a place to sleep. They gave my girls a warm bed and a hot bath. Now, it feels like family, like home."
AFTER THE CAKE was lit, Shaffer turned the lights off and about 15 people sang "Happy Birthday." Alexa blew her candles out in one breath. Women poured coffee and King passed out presents for all of the children.
"Last year was such a disaster," Shaffer said. "She had a great birthday."
The Shaffer’s have to leave the shelter by Dec. 1. "We give them 89 days to stay," King said. "After that, we move them somewhere else. They will have somewhere to go. We do not let them stay out in the cold."
Shaffer said she does not know what she will do when she leaves the shelter, but her time at the shelter has helped her in many ways.
"I have never been more grateful for anything in my life," she said. "The day after we got here, they helped me get my girls into school and they connected me with social services, put me to work right away. They put some light in me. I have some fight in me now.
"The most important thing we got here is encouragement," Shaffer said. "They lifted my spirits and made me feel like human again. It changes you as a person. It puts something back."
Shaffer hugs Alexa on the living room couch. She thanks her mother for the birthday party. "Whatever happens, I am glad we were here when we were," Shaffer said.