An Empty Shoebox, A Bare Christmas

Utility bills wiped out the money one unemployed mother had been saving to give her 12-year-old son a Christmas.

There’s a shoebox tucked away in Sheryl Martinson’s home.

The shoebox itself isn’t anything special, but its contents promised a holiday reprieve from the daily struggles that plague this unemployed single mother.

Martinson had squirreled away $500 in that little box. To her, the money was about more than greenbacks and the toys it could buy. It was about carving out a harbor of tranquility that could shield her 12-year-old son from the full storm of their financial difficulties.

Martinson graduates from college next fall. If she could just make it through this Christmas, she thought, she’d have a good job by the time the holiday rolls around next year.

But in the spring, Martinson’s financial difficulties overcame her ability keep up with her utility bills. Knowing the cascading consequences that could follow if she didn’t bring everything current immediately, Martinson emptied her small savings.

Now the shoebox is empty.

“I felt ignorant. There’s a lot of things I didn’t know.”

Unemployment has left its mark on millions across the country, but Martinson was dealt a bad hand much earlier in life.

She was orphaned at 11 when her mother died in front of her from a ruptured artery traceable to the fatal Type IV variant of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome—a disease that killed her sister a couple decades later. Martinson only went to school through eighth grade.

“I felt ignorant,” she confessed. “There’s a lot of things I didn’t know.”

And yet Martinson carved out a comfortable life over the years. She got her GED. She entered the title industry. Over 14 years, she climbed from assistant closer to a national title examiner researching title issues, primarily foreclosures, in all 50 states.

Her home is perhaps the greatest proof of just how far she’s come. It’s a well-maintained, white, two-bedroom on Hopkins’ east side. It has a privacy fence and yard that benefits from Martinson’s love of gardening.

Martinson may have felt ignorant, but she was smart enough to avoid the exotic mortgages and unnecessary square-footage that sank so many other homebuyers.

Life seemed to be going well.

“There’s no room for error."

But two years ago, that life started to fall apart. The company she worked for, Fiserv, laid off her entire department as it aimed to cut costs by outsourcing their work.

Her sister died around that same time—in her 30s, just like her mother—and Martinson incurred steep medical bills as doctors sought to determine whether she had the same fatal illness that killed them.

Martinson eventually filed for bankruptcy—and sank deep into depression.

Yet even then she wasn’t beaten. Although she worried about her lack of formal education, Martinson enrolled in the Minnesota School of Business’ paralegal program.

“I decided I couldn’t just sit around and mope,” she said. “Unfortunately, the market that I’m used to is no longer hiring.”

She took out student loans for tuition and pays for her and her son’s other expenses with the child support payments the 12-year-old’s father sends religiously.

“There’s no room for error,” she said.

“Every month I never sleep because I worry something is going to get shut off.”

Managing such a tight budget was always a tricky affair. Martinson had her own expenses—a $110 calculator for algebra here, folders and binders there—while her son also needed the usual array of supplies.

“It’s a struggle,” she said. “Every month I never sleep because I worry something is going to get shut off.”

Yet Martinson managed to make it work, even saving money periodically so that she could give her son a Christmas. The boy didn’t understand just how tight the family’s budget had been and Martinson could tell he didn’t want to stand out from his friends—like many children his age.

“At 12, everything is image, image, image,” Martinson said.

It was the utility bills that threw the precarious balance out of whack. Martinson slipped behind on a payment. Although she tried to catch up, the penalties mounted faster than those catch-up payments.

The final blow came when the city hit her with the $100 “service charge” it bills to all residents whose missed payments are moved to the special assessment roll. ( says the service charge covers mailing, postage and publication costs related to the special assessment roll.) That fee was just over a quarter of the amount Martinson owed when the city approved the assessment roll.

“It wiped out everything,” she said. “Now I have nothing for (my son). But what do you do? (Would) you make sure he has something to wake up to for Christmas or have a roof over his head?”

Martinson's path was clear: The space beneath the family's tree will be empty this year.


Christmas has always been a lonely time for Martinson. Her mother and sister are gone. She doesn’t have any family other than her son. That $500 could have brought a bit of light to an otherwise gloomy season.

Of course, Martinson knows she doesn’t need $500 to celebrate Christmas. She’ll use this austere holiday to teach her son that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday—not his own. Perhaps they’ll even volunteer at a homeless shelter to emphasize that there’s always someone worse off.

But that doesn’t stop Martinson’s tears as she thinks of the gifts she can’t give.

It doesn’t fill a shoebox that now sits empty.

Billie Gosling December 13, 2011 at 07:40 PM
How can we help her? I fully expected to see a line at the end of this article about how we can help. Ending on a downer while not giving the reader a chance to help someone is very frustrating.
Billie Gosling December 13, 2011 at 07:41 PM
Also, I have been donating toys to Toys for Tots over the course of the holiday season, and I know they try to supply toys for all age groups. I hope she is considering using that service, too.
James Warden (Editor) December 13, 2011 at 08:27 PM
She has been referred to ResourceWest, which has a program like Toys for Tots called Toy Chest as well as utility assistance. I'll contact her and see if she's interested in having her personal information out there for people to help.
Billie Gosling December 13, 2011 at 08:54 PM
Tom Obinger December 14, 2011 at 04:35 PM
Please how can we help?
James Warden (Editor) December 14, 2011 at 04:38 PM
We have such a giving community here. I'll be in touch with her soon and post some details once I've had a chance to talk to her.
Heather Rachel December 14, 2011 at 05:21 PM
Thank you for sharing her story.
James Warden (Editor) December 14, 2011 at 11:02 PM
If you're interested in helping Ms. Martinson, shoot me an e-mail with your real name and a phone number where I can reach you.


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