Once there was a bright young lady, full of life, with a smile that lit up a room. She didn’t come from the most successful family. She didn’t live in the best part of town. But she was intelligent and determined to make something of her life. She had her whole life in front of her and had many hopeful dreams.
One day a friend invited her to hang out. On the way home, they stopped for gas and he went into the mini-mart to pay and grab some sodas. It took a little longer than normal. When he ran back to the car shaking, she knew something was wrong. Then, she got a glimpse of his left hand slumped down between the seat and the door. It contained a weapon that she hadn’t noticed before. When she questioned her friend, he insisted nothing was wrong, but she sensed something terrible was in the air. The rest of the way home was spent in tense silence.
Early the next morning, she awoke to the sound of knocking. It was the police. They stormed into her home and told her that she had the right to remain silent, which she did. She just woke up. When the cold steel of the cuffs began to cut into her wrists, she fully awoke to the worst nightmare of her life. They told her that she was being charged for robbery and murder.
This began a legal battle that lasted several months. The authorities quickly realized that she had no knowledge of those tragic moments nor any complicity in the crimes. But she was in the car when it sped away from the scene. It was an open and shut case. The hand of one is the hand of all. She was guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person. For that crime of naivete, she would serve no jail time. She would be on probation for years. But she quickly realized that she’d pay for that evening for the rest of her life every time she applied for a job or looked for an apartment.
For several years, she brought her winning smile and bubbly personality to the only people who would take care of her: men who didn’t know how to respect a woman. She bounced around from home to home with her increasing family. She rarely complained of her lot in life and never gave up hope of standing on her own two feet, but had no idea how that could happen.
By the time a nice lady at her school approached her about her living circumstances, she and her children were living in a hotel again. This was nothing new for them. Her kids had moved in and out of hotels for most of their lives. This social worker gave her information about an organization that reaches out to families in her circumstance.
For the next nine months, she continued to bounce around, living in several temporary locations. But now she wasn’t alone and she was focused on several long term goals.
When 2014 came on the calendar, she took her first major step toward independence. She received her GED. Now there were no hurdles standing in her way in her dream to attend college. She also landed a short term job that helped her pay the bills. This allowed her to move from the hotel room to an apartment through a Salvation Army program that assists families with jobs but no stable home.
A couple of weeks ago, we had the privilege of helping her move into her new apartment; her family’s first stable living environment in years.
This is obviously not a fable. It’s a story that unfolded right here in the shadows of our community. This courageous lady might be your neighbor. She might be in front of you in the grocery store. Her children might be friends with your children. You probably would have no idea of this families harrowing story. They don’t wear it on their sleeve.
This family’s situation is looking up, but won’t be stable until she secures full time, permanent employment. Remember that “guilty by association” charge that’s on her record? We helped her apply for an expungement, but it’s still a barrier to employment over 10 years later. She wants to work and be self-sufficient. Who’s going to take a chance on her and offer her family the hope of long term stability through viable employment?
But let me ask an even deeper question… We work with families every day that face very difficult challenges. We see them. We know them. But they live in the shadows of our suburban community. Poverty is here, living among us and it’s increasingly difficult to ignore. We might complain about demographics, home values and school challenges, but what are we going to do about it? How will the story of our community end? Will we turn a blind eye or embrace the most vulnerable among us and empower them to live self-sufficiently?
Her choices will go a long way in determining the end of her story. So will ours!