“The path to peace is a lifelong journey. Sometimes you’re on a paved road.
Sometimes you’re walking on a gravel or dirt road.
It’s still your journey. It’s not just for a bit of time. It’s for a lifetime.”
“My daughter Isabella was only 11 years old when we had the most surreal conversation of her young life. It was a Saturday morning in June of 2021. Secretly, we discussed the abuse we faced daily. We were no longer going to be told we were worthless and substandard. We decided it was time to leave my husband and California behind. Together, we looked at a map of the United States and chose Chicago.
From that moment forward, we quietly and methodically carried out our escape plan. Isabella and I came back from the laundromat with fresh, clean clothes. We folded and placed them carefully into Isabella’s dresser we had emptied earlier. To anyone looking on, it appeared that we were doing regular household chores. Internally, we were fighting a storm of fear mixed with absolute determination as we prepared to go. It was all done in stealth mode, very fast, very ‘hush-hush.’ When my husband left Monday morning, we took the clothes, identification, and precious photos out of Isabella’s dresser and put them into our suitcase. Lisa, Isabella’s beloved teddy bear, came along with us. We were moving halfway across the country, leaving the certainty of pain in California. The uncertainty of the unknown lay ahead. Inwardly, we felt a gentle gust of hope roll over us as the bus carried us away.
I was only seven years old when my mother died. She passed away two days after my youngest sister was born. It was as if a bolt of lightning had struck our family. In a flash, everything changed. I had grown up with abuse from my stepdad. When my mom died, my two older siblings and I were shuffled back and forth between our three aunties’ houses. My three younger siblings, which included my baby sister, were put with their biological grandmother, my stepdad’s mom. She was a violent woman and thought my younger siblings should never see us. We only lived five houses away from each other in a small Mississippi town, but we were a world apart. Sometimes my little brother would sneak over to see us. She would come flying down the road beating him and dragging him all the way home. He just wanted to see us. These memories of fractured relationships have stayed with me. They influenced the decisions that have formed my future.
Scarcity also played a role in my life. My upbringing was impoverished. Everyone I knew was struggling to get by. I’m not ashamed of my background. I believe it’s what made me want to go into social work. I felt driven to be part of the solution and help others. I worked hard in school and went on to college. I graduated from Mississippi Valley State University with a degree in Social Work. Through college, I learned to set goals and achieve them. My friendships became like family. I began to grow a strong support network and understand its importance. As I worked toward my degree, I could feel the variability and chaos of home replaced by a set routine with some sense of order. I understood that my life experiences could help and benefit others. Little did I know that in the future, the splintered pain of the past would grow into a vast support network for myself, Isabella, and other families with similar experiences.
The Greyhound arrived at the Chicago Station. Isabella and I were free from our life in California. Tired and apprehensive, I held onto the hope that in Chicago, we would find a home where we wouldn’t endure endless criticism and torment. I found a rooming house-type situation on the Southside of Chicago. It was just a bed. No meals. No help. We had to walk several miles to a dollar store to buy food. We had arrived in a food desert. It was tough. I knew we needed to get out of there and find a place that offered us some assistance and practical support. From my phone, I Googled “Homeless Shelter for Families.” Cornerstone popped up, so we got on a train and headed to the north side. Hannah Shelter had space for us! The kitchen had put a few plates of food aside. That night we dined on spaghetti, coleslaw, and chicken. We came hungry, the food was good, and we were glad to have it.
I was 35 when we arrived at Hannah Shelter. Most parents living there were in their early 20s and had younger children. The younger moms came to me for advice. I worked in social services in Los Angeles. I was glad to offer help, encouragement, and resources that could get us on our feet. We were in it together. It felt good to use my education and work experience to help others.
While living at Cornerstone, I was allowed to train as a Life Coach. The training empowered me to start my own life coaching business, Path2Peace. Subsequently, Chicago Hopes asked me to facilitate parent support groups for the moms at Hannah Shelter. Chicago Hopes (CH) is a non-profit that provides academic support, mentorship, and services to parents and children experiencing homelessness. CH offers these essential services inside Hannah Shelter, so it is accessible for shelter guests. One day, I was meeting with the Family Engagement staff person, I told her, “Your job is so cool. I would love to have your job.” Then she left! Chicago Hopes offered me the job. That’s how I became the Family Engagement Administrator! They only interviewed me as a formality. The job was always mine. I continue to do parent workshops, but I love my new position. It was another opportunity to uplift young moms recovering from homelessness, poverty, and abuse.
Isabella and I spent this Thanksgiving with my baby sister and my other siblings. My baby sister and I have been talking a lot. We hadn’t had a relationship until last year. Now, we’re making up for lost time! We weren’t able to be sisters before but we’re grown now. We don’t need someone to tell us whether we can talk to each other. Nobody is going to whoop us for behaving like sisters. And that’s what we are.
Like our first meal at Cornerstone, our first meal in our new home was spaghetti. I felt gratitude and immense pride as we set up our new place. I knew it would be a home filled with love and safety, a true home. After a year in our basement apartment, we were able to move up to another unit in the same building. We cleaned out the old space and gave thanks. It cared for us that year that we lived there. That year of new beginnings and new relationships on our path to ever-growing peace and connection.
I recalled the field trip we took to the zoo just a few days before moving from the shelter into our apartment. I felt free at the zoo with the moms and kids from Hannah Shelter. It was a warm summer day, and the sky poured. We all began screaming, laughing, and running in the rain. It seemed like everyone felt a surge of joy and peace at that moment. No matter what we had all been through, we were together. We supported each other through the hard times and the good times, too. I felt like the deluge ended all the pain and mistreatment. It was the end of homelessness and the end of being abused for Isabella and me. It was a perfect way to end it all.”
“She was bent but not broken.
She fainted but did not fail
and rose to the challenge to overcome each obstacle thrown her way.”
– Shirena Houston, Hannah Shelter Program Manager, when asked to comment about Sandra
“I want to thank my Program Director and Case Manager,
and the Cornerstone Community Outreach staff
for your love and support during one of the lowest moments of my life.”
This true story was written from conversations between Sandra and Beth Nicholls.
Names have been changed.