How a life-changing summer opportunity brought purpose

A homeless mom with no support, she ultimately made a new life for herself through the help of a community and the sweat of her brow.

Tearing apart a mattress is not as fun as it sounds.

Kasandra “Kasi” Vega knows. She spent a month at the UTEC mattress factory in Lowell, hand-cutting old mattresses and recycling the steel, foam and wood. Every day her body would ache, her hands would cramp and a film of cotton and debris would stick to her like a second skin.

It also happened to be the most important experience of her life.

In October 2013, Kasi was a single mom and homeless. She was referred to the United Teen Equality Center (UTEC), a United Way partner agency that serves young people from the Lowell/Lawrence area as part of United Way’s Summer Experiences in Greater Lowell (SEGL) program.

“You can’t give the answers to everything,” said Elizabeth Porrazzo, Kasi’s Transitional Coach. “But I can offer support. These youth may not have had someone who believed in them before, but no matter what they did I still believe in them.”

This was a foreign concept for Kasi. She had been kicked out of her house following a violent confrontation with her mother and her father had always been in and out of her life. But from the moment she started with UTEC, she knew something was different.

“Nobody had ever asked me what my goals and dreams were,” she says.

She began the program at the mattress factory, and eventually climbed the ladder to the top “Enterprise Level,” where she now supervises and serves as a role model to other teens. She has completed her GED and plans to become a police officer, working with at-risk kids in Lowell.

More importantly she found healing in her family, reconciling with her mother and reconnecting with her father. It is all due to her growth over the past few years. Like those mattresses she tore apart an entire existence ago, her life was deconstructed and, bit by bit, repurposed into something else, something more, something better.