Article By Jake Allen
Photos By Chloe Grigsby
The driver’s side window of the truck was broken. Glass was sprayed across the lawn. Lansing resident Liz Owczarzak thought, “Oh shit." And it was Christmas.
For Owczarzak, the theft of a pair of Bose headphones, a blue backpack and two Western Digital hard drives with two terabytes of space each was anything but minor.
“I saw and I thought, ‘not again. How many times do I have to put up with this in life? Why are there those kinds of bad people out there that want to do those kinds of things?”
The loss of the hard drives wasn’t the first time Owczarzak faced hardship in her 63 years of life.
She has struggled through homelessness, a learning disability, the death of her mother and father, multiple surgeries and no access to a personal computer during her time as a student at Lansing Community College.
Owczarzak graduated with a grade-point average that qualified her for Summa Cum Laude honors in May 2015 with an associate's degree in geographic information system. But, without her hard drives to guide her, Owczarzak is stuck while trying to find a paying job or trying to continue her education, potentially at MSU.
A Christmas crime
Part of the Christmas tradition for Owczarzak and her family was to go to the movies on Christmas day. She said it was something her parents liked to do that allowed her siblings to celebrate the holiday with the other side of their families. Her current troubles began with the continuing of this tradition.
“This Christmas I decided I have enough money and I could go see a movie to treat myself,” Owczarzak said. “I actually went to a movie, got home at 7:30 p.m., following morning when I came out the driver's side window on my truck was broken.”
Owczarzak immediately called the police and gave them serial numbers for most of her stolen items, including numbers for her hard drives, but said she doubts anything is being done with the case.
"I don't know if they'll just say, 'They're not working,' and toss (the hard drives),” Owczarzak said. “I keep praying that they've kept them. ... Walk it into a police station and say, 'I found this.'"
Because Owczarzak was too poor to buy her own computer, her stolen hard drives contained all of her school work as well as leasing information for her apartment and forms she needs to apply for government assistance.
Jim Lynch, one of Owczarzak’s professors at Lansing Community College as well as the trades technology program director, said the loss of the hard drives and school work is a major setback for someone looking for a job in geographic information system, or GIS.
"When you are looking for a GIS job, they want to see how you have performed using the software and the different things that you can do and it's all data driven,” Lynch said. “That would be astronomical to disastrous to lose your data."
The hard drives also contained family photos.
Without them, Owczarzak said she will basically have to start her life over.
"What they took from me was my life on that hard drive. All the work that I have put through since 1980, all my school work and all my work in life in general and all the memories of my dad.”
Hard drives and a learning disability
Owczarzak grew up in a household with four siblings in Detroit. She graduated high school from the now closed St. Cyril and Methodius High School in 1971.
For Owczarzak, school was always a struggle. It wasn’t until she was a student at Ferris State University that she realized why.
"It's actually called scotopic sensitivity syndrome, and there's a lot of debate about whether it's real or just a bunch of bunk, but it has to do with language processing,” Owczarzak said.
The struggle is not with sight, but with processing words on a white background, such as paper, Owczarzak said. When she was first diagnosed with the syndrome, she was given a tinted pair of glasses.
"When I did that and I put those glasses on for the first time and I looked at a page of paper, it was like, 'oh my gosh,’” Owczarzak said. “The whole page opened up and it was amazing, but I can't afford to get those glasses anymore.”
Without access to the glasses she needs, Owczarzak writes to process words and to be able to read. She records all of her lectures and later transcribes them.
“If you were to sit there and open up a page from a book or something and start writing it out, it would take you 10 times longer than if you were to sit there and read it,” Owczarzak said. “My process of getting information in is through my hand."
Owczarzak said everything on her hard drives was digitalized so she could change the background color behind the text and process the information, working around her scotopic sensitivity syndrome.
Homelessness and graduation
Owczarzak was just like any other student at Lansing Community College, except when she was done with her day of classes she would head back to the Lansing City Rescue Mission or her truck for the night. She was homeless.
She showered at the YMCA in Lansing. The only way she had access to a computer was at a public library or on campus at school. Owczarzak would wake up most days and buy a block of ice from Meijer to keep food cool for lunch inside a cooler in her truck. She would arrive at Lansing Community College around noon and worked on school work until they kicked her out of the building at 11 p.m. Then she would return to the city rescue mission and be responsible for chores.
The hardest part for Owczarzak was not having her own place to rest at the end of the day, she said.
A lot of times you are walking through a busy place and you are sitting there feeling so much pain and so much hurt with what's going on in your life,” Owczarzak said about being homeless. “You feel isolated, like nothing else seems to understand what's going on."
Lynch said comprehending what it must have been like for Owczarzak to get through school was not possible.
“It's beyond me because I don't even know how I would react to it," Lynch said. “I just can't believe she was homeless. I knew she was homeless. She would tell me, 'this is why I didn't come to class one time, because I couldn't find a place to stay.' It's a big hurdle, a huge hurdle she worked around to be successful."
Carol Miller and her husband Art Miller worked for the Lansing City Rescue Mission from 2003 to 2010, where Owczarzak would sleep sometimes when she was homeless.
Carol Miller said she became sort of a grandmother figure for Owczarzak during her time at the city rescue mission. Carol Miller also said even though Owczarzak was fighting her own problems, she never forgot about others.
"She cares about others,” Miller said. “She loves other people and she would always want to help somebody. I've seen her loan money to people and not ever get it back. She just does what she can for other people that are hurting.”
Carol Miller also said just as Owczarzak helped others push forward, she never stopped herself.
“She's had multiple difficulties and setbacks and yet she is so tenacious. She just didn't let it rule her life. She just kept going to college and kept on plugging away.”
Owczarzak said even today she couldn’t explain how she got through school while homeless.
"How do you explain that (homelessness) to somebody?” Owczarzak said. “How do you say keep on going? I get upset with people that just want to give up."
Owczarzak said government assistance came through after several years and she was able to move into an apartment. Owczarzak also graduated in May 2015 from Lansing Community College with an associate's degree in geographic information systems.
After graduating, Owczarzak said she took her degree back to show her mother she didn’t have to worry about her anymore.
“I felt it could give her some peace of mind that things will be okay for me," Owczarzak said. “All my other brothers and sisters, they were taken care of. My mom actually wanted to take it and I said, 'No, Mom, I can't let you take it. I've got to put it up on the wall in my apartment.'"
Owczarzak’s mother died less than a year later, in February 2016.
Before she lived in Lansing, Owczarzak left her parents’ home in Detroit for an apartment when she was 19 years old with nothing but her clothing. She bounced between a job at a brokerage firm and an accounting position with the American Red Cross and began going to college at night to study accounting.
She decided accounting wasn’t for her and moved back in with her parents close to Jackson, Mich. Owczarzak attended Jackson Community College and found through career planning that she had an interest in surveying.
Owczarzak’s next move was to transfer to Ferris State University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in surveying. She purchased a mobile home near Ferris State, but later had it all taken away because of licensing issues with the owner of the park her mobile home was in. She was forced to sell her mobile home for almost nothing in return.
Owczarzak once again moved back home to her parents’ house near Jackson. This is when she first started as a student at Lansing Community College. It was also when her father died.
Leonard Owczarzak and Liz Owczarzak always had a closeness. One of the most devastating losses for Liz from the theft of the hard drives were photos of her father, Leonard, during his time serving in the military. He served in World War II.
"I don't have my dad anymore to give me advice on life and lead me to be a good person,” Owczarzak said. “What I have is the photos to remind me of what that meant to him."
After the death of her father, Owczarzak’s mother, Helen, was placed into assisted living and Owczarzak was forced to move out of the house.
The death of her father would stick with her even after moving away from Jackson
"I know she (Owczarzak) felt really bad when her dad passed away,” Carol Miller said. “That was a really difficult time for her. Her dad passed away and she didn't know what to do."
Owczarzak said the only way to move on from the death of her father was to keep moving forward.
"My next step forward was to come up to Lansing,” Owczarzak said. “I moved up to Lansing and slept out of my truck at night.”
Moving forward post-graduation
Owczarzak currently does GIS work for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Division in Lansing as a student intern, a position she received through one of her last classes at Lansing Community College. It is an unpaid position.
Marshall Strong, a resource specialist in the wildlife division at the department and Owczarzak’s boss, said he is more than pleased with her contributions, but intern positions are not permanent. Owczarzak’s internship will be ending this spring, Strong said.
Owczarzak said she is running into problems finding a position in GIS because most available positions require a bachelor’s degree. She said she would like to return to school, but has run out of Pell Grants and student loans from the government.
Owczarzak said she does not feel comfortable with the situation she is in right now.
"I am scared to live where I am living," Owczarzak said. “Not having much money, if you are on disability you are stuck into poverty for the rest of your life. That's my motivating force is to get out from under living on disability and to get a job and to contribute the community.”
For Owczarzak getting her bachelor’s degree or finding a meaningful job in GIS would change everything.
"It would mean starting my life,” Owczarzak said. “Being able to have the money, to have the security to get out from under government assistance and being able to be somebody that can say 'Here, I can help you.’”
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