SPRINGFIELD — Chloe Sowell loves her Christmas tree, her cat, her dolls and her bedroom.
Last year, she had none of those things. She and her mother, Meaghan, were homeless.
Sleeping in her van, Sowell put Chloe, now 5, in Isabel's House, an emergency shelter for children, until they could get into The Kitchen Inc.'s Missouri Hotel, a shelter for single women and families.
Standing in the living room of their rented home, Chloe admits she was scared at the shelters. "It's better to be home with my mommy," she says, her blue eyes growing wide behind her wire-rimmed glasses.
They moved into their home just before winter hit last year.
"You count your blessings," says Sowell. "When you've been there, you know what it can be."
For the growing population of homeless families in Springfield and around the country, finding a home is just one of many problems.
Sowell understands the fears, the bad choices, the drama that can overwhelm a mother. She also understands how to overcome those challenges, and she takes every opportunity she can to share her story.
"I am a product of the foster-care system," says Sowell, 25, who speaks to organizations about her experience with Isabel's House.
She was 19 when she had Chloe. Although she stayed in foster care until she was 21, she was not prepared to make it on her own.
She lived with friends on and off and worked at lots of "crappy jobs," but lack of child care often led to losing even that small income.
When Chloe was 3, she and her mother went to the Missouri Hotel for the first time.
"The first time we were there, I blew it off. I didn't do the program," Sowell says. "That's why I ended up right back."
Residents at the hotel are given a 40-hour-a-week schedule to keep, based on their own needs, says Teresa Oglesby, coordinator of resident and social services. For example, if they have no high school diploma, they are expected to work on their GED. They also may have therapy, substance abuse classes or other programs.
They are also expected to work in a service area on The Kitchen campus.
Sowell's second stay lasted six months. "I worked the program" that time, she says.
But during the hot summer months between the two stays, they ended up sleeping in her van. She had to hide Chloe, knowing her situation would mean losing her daughter to the foster system, something she swore she would never allow to happen.
Sweltering temperatures meant she had to leave the windows open, but mosquitoes left her tiny blonde daughter covered in bites.
"That's why I used Isabel's House," she says.
Isabel's House provides emergency care for children — up to 30 days within a year — and works with parents to resolve their crises, says Kelly Hill, family advocate at Isabel's House.
"We try to really work with that parent to set goals together," she says. "We help them see what will work with them."
Sowell has used Isabel's House three times, twice while homeless and once since moving into her home.
"I was on the verge of losing my job because I didn't have child care," she says. "I was so stressed out."
The stress of living on the streets, struggling to get into a home and then struggling to pay bills has taken its toll on Sowell and Chloe.
Chloe is in play therapy. "I can see all the trauma catching up to her," says her mom, who — through Isabel's House and The Kitchen — also attends parenting classes, gets individual therapy and has a mentor. "I'm still constantly scared, but now I have people I can reach out to."
She works at Isabel's House while Chloe is in kindergarten. She gets off in time to walk her daughter home from school.
"The best part of being in our house is doing the everyday, simple family things," Sowell says after reading "Anastasia" with Chloe after school. Those things include putting up a Christmas tree, sitting down to dinner at a small wooden table she and Chloe set, watching whatever they wish on television, being alone with Chloe.
"Peace and quiet, that's what I feel in my house," she says. "We have a routine every day."
Sowell's home was made possible through the Shelter Plus Program through the Missouri Department of Mental Health and the Ozarks Area Community Action Corp.
Sowell knows no programs will change anyone's life unless they work toward that themselves.
The first month she was in the Missouri Hotel, she was "in a slump, just thinking, 'poor me,'" she says. "Then I hit an 'aha' moment. I realized that the only one who was going to get me out was me."