The tears come quickly, spilling down Mona Minich's cheeks before she can catch them with the balled-up piece of pink tissue clenched in her hand.
Minich cries because she never imagined she and her husband would be so broke, so desperate that they'd need help feeding their family.
Catching her breath, Minich leans back against the blue plush sofa in her living room. She crosses her arms over her chest, covering the flatness where her left breast used to be - before doctors found a tumor the size of a golf ball, before the family business started to fail, before her savings account was gone and the bill collectors started calling.
A half-empty box of crispy peanut-butter-and-chocolate rice treats sits on the coffee table in front of her. That was one of the items Minich and her husband, Ray, picked up from the Foodbank of the Virginia Peninsula a week earlier, along with chicken and ham, boxes of cereal and cans of corn and green beans.
Without that food, her kitchen cabinets would be empty.
"It's just so - very embarrassing," Minich says, dabbing at her eyes with the soggy tissue. "We're trying really hard. We're thinking of what we can sell. Ray is doing all of the work he can. I mean, we can't help the situation we're in."
Like many who rely on the local Foodbank, the Minich family - Ray, Mona and two children under 16 - wasn't homeless or on public assistance when they asked for help. They are working people who have fallen on hard times.
Their cozy blue home with a backyard pool shows that Ray and Mona didn't always have money problems. Not long ago, Ray was making between $3,500 and $5,000 a month from his independent repair service company, doing painting, deck construction and other handyman jobs.
The family fixed up their small house off a winding road in Ivor, a town in Southampton County just outside Isle of Wight County. They put up an American flag and a "Home Sweet Home" sign at the end of their driveway, planted flowers and cactus plants in their yard and hung a row of wind chimes on their front porch.
They had no trouble making payments on three vehicles: a van for Ray's business, a black Jeep for Mona to drive around town and a camper for family vacations. They enjoyed swimming in their small pool and taking their kids to restaurants and on camping trips.
But on Sept. 11, 2001, everything began to fall apart, Ray and Mona say.
As America's economy faltered after the terrorist attacks, Ray says, people stopped calling him for jobs. Nobody wanted to spend their money, and referrals stopped coming in for more work. Ray's income has dropped to between $100 and $200 a month.
Mona doesn't work because of injuries from a 1989 car accident. During a traffic slowdown on Interstate 64, another driver slammed into her at 55 mph, leaving her with two 18-inch-long titanium rods in her back. Standing or sitting for too long leaves her in excruciating pain.
Mona's $465 monthly disability payments from Social Security go mainly to pay for the house. Mona says Social Security officials told her she hadn't worked long enough before the car accident to qualify for more money.
The family didn't have much of a savings account to fall back on. They'd spent most of that back in 1998, including a $150,000 settlement Mona collected after her car wreck. That was the year Ray lost his job building transformers when his company downsized. The timing was terrible: Ray got his pink slip two weeks after Mona was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer.
Doctors had to remove her entire left breast and 12 lymph nodes, all of which were cancerous. Mona was on Medicare, but that paid just 80 percent of her medical bills.
At one point, she was getting daily shots to help boost her red blood cell count. Each one cost $1,000. Buying more health insurance wasn't practical, the family says, because Mona's cancer was a pre-existing condition and wouldn't have been covered.
Ray was desperate. As his wife went through chemotherapy and radiation, he got a job working at a chicken farm in Southampton County. He spent his days standing knee-deep in excrement, cleaning out barns for what he says was less than minimum wage. Fed up, he left and, in the summer of 1999, founded his own company, Honey Do Repair Service.
The business thrived until its first setback, in April 2000. While the family was away on spring vacation, thieves broke into their home and an outdoor shed. They stole $18,000 worth of tools, including a riding lawnmower and power tools. While homeowner's insurance covered many of the items, Ray lost about four months of business as he waited for the money.
But it wasn't until the fall of 2001 - after Sept. 11 - that the situation got desperate.
The family started making small sacrifices. They stopped going out to dinner, which they used to do at least once a month. Slowly, they cleaned out their kitchen cabinets, down to the last jars of corn and beans. They threw leftovers into pots and turned those into more meals.
Later, Ray went hunting and cooked steaks from the deer that he shot himself.
"Me, I wasn't worried about me," Ray says. "It was the kids that it hurt to think about."
His hair is wet from a shower as he speaks, after an afternoon spent staining his father's deck for $40. He parted with the money during one gas station stop: $38 to fill up his van and $2 for a big bottle of soda.
"For a while, we've been hitting our change jar to buy food," he says. "We were just scrounging our change. With every little bit I got, I'd get food. We were down to beanies-and-weenies - the real cheap stuff."
Then they ran out of beanies-and-weenies.
Family and friends helped with milk, bread, coffee and other staples, as well as cigarettes. Ray and Mona tried to get food stamps but say they were told they own too much property to qualify. They tried to get equity out of their home, but their credit was bad. They went to classes on improving their credit, but they still couldn't get out of their hole.
Finally, in early April, Ray and Mona knew they had no choice but to turn to the Foodbank. They drove there together.
"That was the lowest I've ever felt," Ray says. "It made both of us feel kind of low, because we should be able to do better for ourselves."
The family hasn't gone back to the Foodbank since the spring, but their finances remain shaky and they might need help again. Ray and Mona had to borrow money from their parents to catch up on van and Jeep payments. They recently took out a loan on their life insurance policy, refinanced the pool and are trying to sell the camper. The satellite service for their television is gone.
"We're just waiting for people to come and take other things away," Mona says, swallowing her afternoon dose of tamoxifen - the medicine that aims to keep her cancer from coming back - as a fuzzy episode of "Winnie the Pooh" plays on the TV in the background.
Mona relies on a free drug program for low-income families to get the tamoxifen, which would cost $165 a month. Her doctors have been patient with her financial situation, she says, but each check-up costs at least $100 and she has had to skip some.
Ray hopes his business will turn around soon. He's tired and worried, but he can't unwind from his days with a cold beer. Money is too tight for that luxury.
"Sometimes I'll just go sit on the back deck and look into the woods when it's all really bothering me," he says. "I try to get into another world."
He can't escape for too long. At 9:30 one recent night, Ray comes inside his house to search for pennies that he can roll and take to the bank.
Anything, he figures, can help.
Alison Freehling can be reached at 247-4789 or by email at email@example.comCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times