I More Than Survived, I Thrived! How an After-School Program Helped Change the Trajectory of My Life
… I was 14 years old. It had been 10 long years of abuse from my untreated mentally ill mother and 6 long years of sexual abuse from my mother’s third husband.
One morning as my mother physically and mentally abused me, a week after returning from the abortion clinic where I aborted mother’s husband’s child…
I grabbed my face with my hands as I yelled out in pain! I feel her hands trying to choke me, but I am determined not to let her as we tussle on the coach. “I hate you” Momma said, as she tried to bang me in my face with her fist!
I manage to get off the couch and I am running toward the front door. She is directly behind me and grabs the neck of my night gown and pulls me back; I had almost made it to the front door. She is hitting me in the back of my head, as I hunch over trying to cover up!
I swung around and grabbed the upper middle section of her arms, pinning them to her side as I slammed her against the wall, by the front door! I thought my heart was going to burst! It scared me to be able to pin her on the wall like that briefly; Momma is a big lady! I didn’t know I could be that strong!
I’m out the door and I am running! Running until I get several blocks away from the house. By the time I had gotten to grandma Bertha’s house, Momma had already called her and threatened her not to let me stay there if I showed up.
Grandma Bertha said it would be best if I went to Aunt Marilyn’s, but Momma had already called her too and she did not want to have to deal with Momma either. Grandma Bertha told me I had to go back home and that she would take me when she got home from work that evening.
When she left for work I hung out with daddy Presley until about midday, by that time daddy Presley was drunk and passed out. I already had old clothes over at grandma Bertha’s from years of weekend visits. I got dressed and I filled an old back pack with food, grabbed some toilet tissue, one of grandma’s new tooth brushes, deodorant, a couple of candles and matches from the kitchen, tooth paste, a bar of soap, a towel, several wash cloths, a plastic plate, a plastic cup, a fork, a knife, a spoon and I left.
I walked back to the park that was actually a couple streets over from Momma’s house. It had a huge rocket slide in the center of the park; it looked like a real rocket that went really high in the air. At the top of the rocket slide there is a chamber where you can sit as you blast off into space.
It used to be my play house when my siblings and I were at the park; people outside could not easily see you hidden inside at the top. I climbed to the top, hid inside and ate some of the food that I had taken from grandma Bertha’s house. I lay down to think and feel asleep.
I jolted up from the rocket slide floor as my heart raced and looked around; it was almost evening time! “I gotta find somewhere to stay”, I think… it’s was almost dark! Tom Joyner used to always say “The sunny side of South Dallas” on KKDA, but wasn’t NOTHING sunny about South Dallas at night; it was not the place to be a young female wandering the streets alone.
“If I could not find a place to sleep by night, I will come back and sleep in the rocket slide”, I thought as I climbed down to the ground.
I set out and crossed back over 2nd Avenue to search on the other side of the rail road tracks; there were lots of boarded up houses over there. The men that stood out on the corners drinking, watched as I walked from street to street; I kept my eyes straight ahead and tried not to look at them.
The first house that I checked looked okay from the front. I went around to the back of the house and I saw that it had two old living room couches, along with some folding chairs, sitting around in the back yard; but no one was there. I walked between the furniture and up the steps to the back porch. I wanted to look through the back window to see if it looked like someone was living inside.
As I got closer to the window I heard voices. I looked into the window and there was a group of men standing around watching a woman; that was naked and whose back was to the window. She was on her knees and another man was standing in front of her with his pants down.
I stumbled back, turned around and took off running! I heard the back door open and a man yell ‘Hey’, as I turned the corner of the house running as fast as I could.
After that, I stayed away from houses that had furniture in the front or back yard, I stayed away from houses that had lots of beer cans, bottles and cigarette butts; there had to be people hanging around for something.
I wandered around a while more, but I was getting scared; it was almost dark. As I walked along the rail road tracks on Trunk Ave, I noticed a side street at the far end of the rail road tracks near Metropolitan Ave. It had high grass and weeds around the two houses.
The grass and weeds reached up to the side windows of the house. The house had a front porch with two old columns in the front, and a back porch with two stairs.
There was also an alley that ran along the back of the old abandoned houses. The grass and weeds were over grown in the back yard too. I could easily hunch over and disappear in the grass and weeds.
I had finally found a house that looked unused, and if it did have anything in the back yard, you could not see it for the grass and weeds; which was a good sign to me.
I went around the back of the house and checked; the back door was locked. I was able to get the back window open without breaking the glass. My heart was racing; I was happy and scared at the same time. I climbed in the window to take a quick look around before it was completely dark.
It was already getting dark inside the house but I could see that it was old and needed to be cleaned. It had an old musty mildew smell; it even had mold on the walls in the bathroom and there was no water or lights, but I did not care.
I climbed back out the window and went and sat across the other side of the rail road tracks in the trees; and watched the house for a while to see if anyone was going to come back to the house once it got dark.
Once it was dark I waited about 30 more minutes and I climbed back into the house through the window. It was completely black in the house; I was feeling my way through the room when I thought I saw a shadow move… I screamed and starting swinging at the air!
Nothing was there but the sound of my voice echoing off the walls; and the sounds that the old house was making, which did not help!
I backed up quickly until my back hit the wall in the dark, I moved along the wall until I hit the corner; I put my back to the corner in the living room, slide down and pulled my knees up to my chest; I cried until I fell asleep.
The next morning, I got up and went to use the bathroom, but the toilet did not flush because there was no running water. I remembered how we flushed at home when the water was turned off, when we couldn’t pay the water bill. “I just need to get water from somewhere to flush with” I thought as I grabbed peanut butter, crackers and a soda out of my backpack and walked around the house.
Now that it was fully daylight, I could really see what the inside looked like. It had two bedrooms with a living room, kitchen and bathroom. The house was old and you could tell from all of the dust and spider webs that no one had lived there for a long time. I felt my insides fall as I thought about this being my house now, “But at least it didn’t look like other people had been living in it and it wasn’t nasty” I thought, as I stared out the window, I felt safe.
After I finished eating, I went to the back door window and peeked out, before slowly opening the screen door to make sure that no one was seeing me leave the house; and quickly hopped down the stars and headed out into the little alley behind all of the other houses. At the end of the alley I made a right and headed across the street, towards the railroad tracks to walk to the main street; that is where the corner store sat.
As I crossed the street into the store parking lot, I noticed that the store had these beautiful green ivy plants hanging in pots out front. “I’m gonna have me some plants like that in my house one day” I thought, as I walked into the store.
After I found and picked up a bottle of Lysol, I headed toward the restroom. I noticed that there was a door opened just past the restrooms; that led outside to the back of the store. I looked out the door and just outside it sat two buckets stacked, with a mop inside it and a broom propped against the wall.
I quickly went into the restroom; pulled out my bar of soap, wash cloth, tooth brush and deodorant and washed up. Once I had finished, I stepped outside the restroom and got a drink of water, as I looked to see who was around. I walked over to the open door and looked outside to see if anyone was out there and saw that the gate was open.
I quickly tossed the Lysol into the bucket; picked the mop and broom up and placed them under my arm and grabbed the bucket handles with my other hand, and took off running toward and out the open gate.
Once I got back, I took the broom and started knocking the spider webs and dust from the ceilings, walls, door frames and swept the floor. As I swept the floor I felt bad for taking the broom and buckets, “God forgive me”, I prayed as I used a piece of paper for a dust pan. I could not mop or wipe anything down yet; I had to get water first, the corner store did not close until 10 p.m.
I headed back out looking for items for my house. I went back by some of the abandoned houses that I had seen the day before, and looked for items to go back and get later that night. After the store closed I took the two buckets back to the store, jumped the fence in the back and opened the gate to bring the buckets in.
I filled the two buckets with water and sneaked back out; leaving the gate unlocked. I took the buckets of water back to the house. I flushed the toilet with the water from one bucket. I poured half of the clean water into the empty bucket. Poured Lysol in the other bucket, used one of the cloths from grandma’s and started wiping things down; especially the bathroom and the kitchen as best I could in the dark.
I mopped and re-swept the floors. Once I finished, I poured the dirty water out in the back yard. I took the two buckets back to the store and rinsed them clean and then refilled them with fresh water. I placed the two buckets down outside the gate, went back inside and locked the gate back from the inside. I jumped the fence and carried the buckets of water back to the house so that I could have fresh water.
I left out again and walked three blocks back to one of the abandoned houses I went to earlier in the day; the front yard looked like they threw everything out of their house into it, that they no longer wanted. As I turned the corner there was a bunch of people gathered in the yard next to the house and there were several men in the group. I quickly turned right and continued to keep walking past the street.
I went to the other house where I saw an old ratty twin mattress earlier. I looked around and quickly started dragging the small mattress to the railroad tracks; and then along the tracks until I was near my end of the neighborhood.
With there not being any street lights, I was hoping I was not noticed dragging the mattress along the railroad tracks. I did not see anyone and I don’t think anyone saw me; at least no one offered to help me if they did.
I pulled it past the house, to the end of the corner and made the right; and then another right into the alley. Then making my way through the back yard, I pulled it onto the back porch, swept it with the broom, and took it into the living room. I later, went back to the first abandoned house to find that there was no one standing around. I folded and grabbed the old card table and took off running, dragging it back to the abandoned house.
A few days later I spotted and grabbed an old folding chair. I felt pretty good once those items were in place. It was my room. I had a mattress, table and chair. “I just needed to make it pretty” I thought as I drifted off in a tired sleep.
After weeks of not bathing or being able to wash my clothes they were starting to smell and a few girls at Skyline High School were starting to tease me. I tried to rinse the clothes in the tub with the water from the bucket, but I was ‘high sprung’ as Momma called me; and I had run out of deodorant. Rinsing the clothes in plain water was not enough to get the musk out of them.
I had to walk all the way to James Madison High School to catch the bus for Skyline, which caused me to sweat out my already musky clothes before the day even got started. I really tried to avoid everyone but a girl named Jackie and her friends made sure that no one sat next to me on the bus, which was fine with me!
They would start in on me as soon as I was within ear shot. “She need to wash, she stink” I would hear come across the bus stop where everyone was standing waiting for the bus.
“She think she so cute, but she be stinking” some girl would yell. I was so embarrassed! I never looked in their direction to know which girl said what.
Once I got to Skyline, I would go to the rest room off of the gym; it had less traffic in the early morning.
I used the restroom sink to wash up, so as not to use all of my water at the house. Once I finished my wash up, I rushed off to the cafeteria to get my free breakfast before classes started.
The only meals I really got daily were free breakfast and lunch at school and was hungry and need another meal by end of day, until one day I started walking up the street away from the neighborhood towards 2nd Avenue. I made a left on 2nd Avenue and kept walking. Soon I smelled East Texas Hot Links in the air! I made the left onto Oakland Avenue to get to the restaurant and went inside.
It was a small place with about six tables to sit and eat inside. It had a long cafeteria style display window that the links sat in, along with other soul food in metal trays. I sat around and waited for someone to leave their uneaten food on the table, but everyone kept picking up their uneaten food and throwing it in the trash can.
After a while, one of the employees came out from the back and pulled the trash bag from the can and headed back behind the counter to the back, to throw the bag away. I quickly got up, walked out the front door and ran around to the back of the restaurant. The boy had just tossed the bag into the dumpster by the time I made it to the back and peeked around the corner. He stopped, lit a cigarette and smoked it halfway, flicked it to the ground and went back inside.
I quickly ran over, picked up the cigarette and took several puffs and clipped it out; I then rolled it inside my sock cuff for later. My head swooshed for a second as I stood and walked over to the dumpster. I raised the lid and looked inside and pulled out the plastic trash bag that sat on top and looked inside it; there was lots of food that their customers had not finished eating and thrown away.
I closed the bag, threw it over my shoulder and took off running back to 2nd Avenue, making my way back to the house. I was excited! I had not had East Texas Hot Links since the last time Corn took us all, it was one of Momma’s favorite places to eat.
You could get them hot or mild; they sat in the display case in metal pans, linked together like the cartoon sausages. They were drenched in a thin greasy sauce that was served with saltine crackers to scoop the sauce and eat with the links. They were the best!
Once I made it back to the house, I went straight to the kitchen and placed the bag on the counter. I grabbed my plate, cup and fork from the sink and placed it on the other counter. I opened the bag and started looking through the food that the customers had thrown away.
I pulled out the larger pieces of links that still had a lot of sausage inside of their casing; I could not tell if the smaller pieces had been chewed or not, so I left them in the bag. I found as many fries and crackers that I could find that were not too nasty looking and I placed them perfectly on my plate. I took the trash bag out the back door and hid it on the side of the porch; I would take it to a dumpster tomorrow.
I got a cup of water from the water bucket and took my plate and fork and sat at my table in my room, which was the living room and bowed my head; “Dear Merciful Father, I truly thank You Lord for the food that I am about to receive, for the nourishment of my body, You gave Your only begotten Son that I might live, in Jesus name I pray and I thank You… Amen”.
I ate until my stomach hurt. As I fell asleep full on the mattress, I wasn’t as scared as yesterday… I had a plan! I would figure out when all of the restaurants threw away their food.
I soon found out that the YMCA had an afterschool program where you could get an after school snack each day and they gave out free lunches on Saturdays. I was hopeful.
I would sit and act like I was reading my school book while I ate. Each day I noticed that Miss Tina, a lady that worked at the YMCA, would watch me while I ate my food. After about a week, she walked over to me, “What are you reading” the voice asked? She scared me so bad I jumped.
I looked up at her “nothing” I said. She smiled. “You come in every day, but I never see you doing any homework, don’t you have homework” she asked? I shook my head up and down “yes.” “Let me see your school assignment” she demanded with a smile.
I pulled my papers out and watched her as she looked at them. “Ok, now let me see your work for this”, she shook the papers as she talked. “Dang” I thought. “I don’t have them with me, but I can bring them tomorrow” I offered. “Then I can do it tonight and bring it back tomorrow” I thought.
She looked at me and smiled; she then tilted her head to the side and looked me in my eyes. “I need for you to bring me your homework every day, okay” she stared, as she waited for a response. I looked at my lap, “okay”.
Everyday Miss Tina sat with me and we did my homework together. She never asked me any personal questions that would let her know I was in trouble; and I never told her I was homeless. But she cared and made me feel like I mattered. I continued with this after-school program, homeless until I was 17 and a half years old. Miss Tina gave me my first paying job, I assisted her as she needed each day with the after-school program and I helped distribute free lunches on Saturdays.
I am truly grateful to that after-school program for providing me a safe place to go every day, a nutritional meal and made me feel that I mattered every day. I appreciative and love that Miss Tina took interest in me and my educational well-being. I KNOW that her interest in my education was instrumental in my staying current academically during a time that school was not important to me, only surviving. She helped me see that I AM SMART! Not only did I graduate high school on time, I graduated with a 3.79 GPA. And this accomplishment helped me know that I would be okay NO MATTER WHAT, it gave me the strength to keep moving, looking for something better, even though I did not know what ‘that better’ was, I just knew I would be okay, not matter what things looked like, or how they felt at the time.
THE SUPPORT THAT I RECEIVED FROM THIS AFTER-SCHOOL PROGRAM HELPED CHANGE THE TRAJECTORY OF MY LIFE! I am certain that if it had not been for this after-school program, I would not have graduated from high-school on time, I would have surely been lost to the streets without any knowledge or hope for what my future could be. Everyone in my neighborhood where victims of circumstance and thanks to those three years with that after-school program I knew and understood that I had a choice!
Now, I have the blessing and pleasure to be Operations Coordinator for NextUp RVA, where we coordinate a system of high quality after-school programs for Richmond middle schools, where they learn in a experiential manner that they can be ANYTHING, from Culinary Arts to Robotics. NextUp RVA is an OST (out-of-school-time) network that coordinates consistent, high quality expanded learning opportunities after school for youth. Not only does NextUp coordinated after-school programs, but we provide homework assistance, integrated services that provides personal support, snack, dinner and transportation, all at no cost to our families.
I count it a privilege and honor to be able to be part of an organization that does for other children what an after-school program did for me, but magnified!
#NextUpRVA #LearningBeyondTheBell #IamMissTina #GivingBack
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