In April, Williams, a single mother of two grown boys, went on family medical leave from her position in purchasing and project management.


WINTER HAVEN — South Korea seemed a million miles away from Janet Williams’ world in New York.


It was 1996. She was 25. She’d just received her first deployment as a new Army recruit.


Korea was considered a “hardship tour,” a place with substandard living conditions compared to the United States. It came with extra pay, but such tours are lengthy.


Her’s lasted a year. Turns out Korea wasn’t so bad. It was her fellow soldiers she had to fear.


Williams says she was sexually assaulted six months after arriving in Korea. Aside from the humiliation, she received a head injury severe enough to cause migraines. Stress, combined with her injuries, led to PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and multiple sclerosis.


As a result, Williams qualified for medical retirement and disability pay. She said she left the Army after serving approximately 3½ years.


Part of that medical history caught up with Williams last year while working for Mizkan America Inc., a Japanese company that makes vinegar products in Lake Alfred and owns the Ragu brand of sauces.


In April, Williams, a single mother of two grown boys, went on family medical leave from her position in purchasing and project management. She received partial salary through a short-term disability insurance policy at work. The money supplemented a modest military disability benefit, which helped her make ends meet.


But the disability insurance ran out in June, and it was four months before her employer-sponsored long-term disability policy produced any income.


As a result Williams fell several months behind in rent, utilities and other obligations, triggering a request for assistance through The Ledger’s Newspaper with a Heart program.


“I wasn’t able to pay anything,” she said. “It was terrible. Once you’re behind it’s hard to catch up.”


The Heart program exists through the generosity of Ledger readers who recognize the need for a fund of last resort for families — neighbors — in crisis, usually because of severe illness, injury or loss of job. The program also assists seniors living on limited incomes.


Fiscal oversight of the Heart fund is provided by United Way of Central Florida.


Donations, which are tax deductible, help lift individuals and families during a temporary setback, paying for a myriad of living expenses. To donate online, visit www.uwcf.org, and click “Give.” Or send checks payable to United Way of Central Florida to P.O. Box 1357, Highland City, FL 33846.


Desperate to find help with her bills, Williams soon discovered that it can be difficult to qualify for emergency assistance through the network of nonprofit agencies in Polk County.


“I fell through the cracks,” she said. “I either made too much income or not enough. Some agencies, until you’re on the street, on the cliff, they can’t help you.”


Facing eviction in February for failure to pay back rent, Williams turned to Catholic Charities, but the agency could offer no financial help.


Instead, it referred Williams to the Newspaper with a Heart committee, which swiftly approved her for several months help with rent, utilities, car loan and insurance payments.


The months of uncertainty over a favorable determination for long-term disability benefits only aggravated Williams’ fragile health.


“I found myself in panic mode,” she said in her application letter to the Heart committee. “There were so many unknown factors and I felt so out of control, having to depend on someone else’s determination in regards to how and when I should be compensated for a medical issue that I have no control over.”


Williams’ physicians have yet to clear her to return to her former job at Mizkan America. She is prepared for a change in career, and is working with the Vocational Rehabilitation program to explore her options.


Her long-term disability benefits will discontinue sometime next year, and she hopes to be working again by then, ideally in the social service arena, helping veterans.


“I’m overwhelmed with gratitude,” she said of the Heart fund. “No matter what you go through, there’s always somebody else worse off than you.”


— Eric Pera can be reached at eric.pera@theledger.com or 863-802-7528.