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Homeless for the holidays

Late at night, after Stephanie has finished laundry, put her freshly bathed toddler, Amber, to bed and spent time visiting with friends in the YWCA shelter's coffee lounge, she goes to her small room.

She plops down onto the twin mattress next to the 19-month-old, who breathes softly and nurses a purple pacifier in her sleep. Then Stephanie pulls out "New Moon," the second book in author Stephenie Meyer's popular "Twilight" series, and reads until 3 a.m.

The book's fantasy world of love and vampires has become a welcome escape from reality for millions - but especially so for Stephanie, whose life has been anything but storybook-perfect.

At 24, after years of abuse from the men in her life, Stephanie and her daughter will spend today - Christmas - at the YWCA Cass Clay Emergency Shelter in Fargo.

Stephanie's made the best of it, taking Amber to shelter activities such as cookie-decorating and the Y's annual holiday party.

But she admits it's "kind of depressing" to spend Christmas here, and she's upset she can't buy more gifts for Amber and her son, Tyler, who lives with her aunt Julie in Washington, D.C.

"I'm really tired of survivor mode," Stephanie says in a laid-back North Carolina accent. "I'm tired of surviving, and I'm tired of settling."

For Stephanie, survival is working a food-service job, driving a pickup that cost $80 and struggling to find $10 to buy antibiotic eye ointment for Amber.

And yet she still shows ambition and hope. She talks of saving up money, going back to school to become a registered nurse and providing a more stable life for her kids than she had.

A nightmarish history

At first, it's hard to imagine that this bright, well-spoken young woman with the wide, easy smile is homeless; especially as she strides with the confidence of a former head cheerleader.

But when she talks about her past, you learn she grew up in a nightmare.

Born to a teenage mother, Stephanie spent her first 12 years with her maternal grandmother. She was a straight-A student with dreams of marine biology.

But after running away to live with her parents and three younger siblings, her life took a sharp turn for the worse. One night after passing out while drinking with her parents, Stephanie says her father - a violent drug user - raped her and fathered her son, Tyler, who was later diagnosed as autistic.

Stephanie's parents eventually ended up in prison, and she worked two jobs to support her young son and siblings.

Later in her 20s, Stephanie moved away from her father, but he always tracked her down. By then, she'd had Amber with another man.

Stephanie was ready for a fresh start. She sent Tyler to live with her aunt, who could offer him more stability. Then she and Amber took a bus to Grand Forks, N.D., to live with her mom. To keep her dad off their trail, they left quickly, with few clothes, $100 in cash and Amber's car seat and stroller.

They lived in Grand Forks for a month before Stephanie's mom decided to move to West Virginia. Her mom suggested Stephanie and Amber move into Fargo's YWCA shelter.

Stephanie arrived at the Y on Black Friday, driving a 1991 Chevy S10 truck with windshield cracks so large snow collects inside the cab.

"So here I am," Stephanie says. "I turn 25 in February. This is not the goal I had for my 25th birthday."

Here for her kids

Amber has huge blue eyes and fine, dark-blond hair that sticks out every which way because she doesn't like to have it combed. With a little prompting, she will remove her

ever-present "tissy" - her code name for pacifier.

"She's super bright, and she has a huge vocabulary," Stephanie says with some pride. "She could be anything."

Amber and Tyler are the main reasons Stephanie left her family and has taken the difficult steps toward changing her life. The Y expects its residents to find a job, attend self-improvement classes and develop life skills.

A self-described workaholic, Stephanie has a job at the Golden Corral buffet restaurant in Fargo. She has scheduled Amber for a developmental evaluation and plans to participate in an upcoming parenting seminar at the Y.

She also has talked to Teisa Taylor, the Y's education and employment coordinator, about taking a certified nursing assistant test so she can work in local hospitals and make a better hourly wage.

A day at the Y

Mornings are busy at the shelter. Stephanie showers and dresses in her Golden Corral uniform. She also prepares Amber for the Y's on-site day care, provided free to residents with jobs.

Amber doesn't like it.

When Stephanie hands Amber over to one of the child care workers, the waterworks begin and she stretches her arms imploringly toward her mom.

It's hard to leave her, but Stephanie knows it's important. Day care will teach Amber how to get along with other kids and will likely become part of her daily routine now that Stephanie is on her own.

Within five minutes, Amber forgets about Mom and starts to play.

Stephanie, meanwhile, begins the process of starting her truck. Her key broke off in the ignition, so she has to start the vehicle with a screwdriver. Eventually it starts, and she drives to work.

Today, she works as a line attendant at the buffet, greeting customers, pouring drinks and operating the cash register. She is good at it, immediately putting customers at ease with her friendly chatter.

"There's no way you can be 60," she says to one couple. The man leans forward and says he's 70. "Seventy? I can't believe that," she says. "You both hold your age so well."

The exhausted parent

After six hours on her feet, Stephanie is tired. Yet she must pick up Amber from day care, feed her, do laundry, give Amber a bath and help with the chores at the shelter. This week, her job is to sweep the east hallway.

But Amber, who didn't nap at day care, is fussy. In the resident dining room, Amber methodically sticks her french fries into her milk.

After dinner, there's much more to do, including bath time, which Amber hates. Stephanie finally gets the toddler dressed in her pajamas and reads "Five Little Pumpkins" to her, stroking her little foot in efforts to lull her to sleep.

It's past 11 by the time Amber nods off. After socializing with friends and the Y's house mother in the coffee lounge, Stephanie reads her book for a while.

She finally falls asleep, never getting around to sweeping the east hall.

Santa's house calls

Ask any Y staffer what their favorite day of the year is, and they'll all say "the client party."

This holiday party allows the Y's residents to relax a bit. Child care is provided so they get a break from watching their children. They eat a buffet and afterward play bingo, with each winner getting bath-and-body sets and other gifts.

Stephanie arrives late at the party, still wearing her work uniform. Her day hasn't gone well. The truck has been idling on high all day, and she doesn't know how to fix it. She's also worried about how to pay for Amber's antibiotic eye drops.

Earlier in the week, Stephanie made $12 in tips. That's all the spending money she has in the world. Since then, she's debated whether she should spend the money on Amber's medication or gas so she can get to work.

After bingo, the kids scamper in from day care and sit with their families. Someone announces Santa Claus is coming. Children run, skipping and laughing, to the windows to watch Santa and Mrs. Claus in a sleigh pulled by horses with presents for every child.

Amber receives a Dora the Explorer bath kit, which Stephanie hopes will make her cry less during bath time. But the little girl is tired and fussy. Both mom and daughter are visibly stressed.

The Y staff has been urging Stephanie to ask the education and employment coordinator for a loan for Amber's medicine. Stephanie was too embarrassed to ask. Finally, outside the party room, she approaches the coordinator and asks for the money. Within minutes, Taylor has given her the cash.

With money in her pocket, Stephanie feels better. After the party, she sits on her bed and reflects on her life. She talks of becoming a nurse or a phlebotomist, and the need to further her education.

She speaks of getting Tyler from her aunt, who has temporary custody.

Stephanie believes the Y is a positive first step toward meeting those goals.

"Some people come in here with an attitude, like they deserve to be helped," she says. "Granted, no one deserves the situation they're in, but if you don't work with the program, it's not going to help you."

She just wants to be a productive citizen. "I want to be a soccer mom," she says, smiling.