“It started with the electricity being turned off,” says Wendy, a mom of two and a resident of the Saint John’s Program for Real Change. Within one month of the lights going off, Child Protective Services (CPS) showed up at the kids’ school even though they were both showered and fed. What could have precipitated such a swift response from CPS?
When I sat down with Wendy to discuss how she had come to Saint John’s, she was brutally honest. Her path had not started with abuse or homelessness; she simply came from a bad situation while living on her mom’s property, a situation that included drugs, peer pressure and too many people in one house – all unbeknownst to her mother at the time.
Wendy’s 8-year-old son was taken to the CPS receiving home and her 3-year-old daughter went to a foster home. The most difficult moment of our interview was when she paused to take a breath, her voice cracking as she told me that nobody wanted her son. I could see it was torturing to her to be reminded of this, but she didn’t back away. He was at the receiving home for four months while she went through rehab. The eight months she was without her kids felt like a lifetime, Wendy said. She now counts the minutes and seconds until she can see her kids every single day.
Seeing her pain and regret, I hinted that her daughter will most likely not remember any of this because she is so young. She shook her head and said, “She wouldn’t remember, but my son occasionally reminds [her] about the foster family.”
“Why don’t you tell him not to mention it?” I asked.
“It’s OK,” she said. “They helped us. They were the ones that [eventually] took my kids in together.”
Meanwhile, Wendy was calling Saint John’s every day while in rehab. She knew that Saint John’s had the program that would help her get her kids back, and teach her how to parent and live sober. She got into their program after two months of calling. Her tenacity is palpable. She has an inner fire that burns bright, and I wanted to talk with her longer just to absorb some of that energy, but today was a special day.
Upon my arrival this morning, I was greeted with the wonderful news that Wendy had just been offered a job at a downtown cafe in the Capitol by a Saint John’s supporter. She was happy when I met with her, yet I could tell that something was also a bit wrong.
Channeling my inner Oprah, I asked Wendy what was going on. She shook her head and said, “It’s nothing.” I stared her down. Wendy sighed and said that it was her last day at Plates Café and Catering, a Sacramento restaurant run by Saint John’s that provides hands-on employment training to the moms, preparing them for the workforce. Wendy said that it was emotional to leave Plates, and a few unexpected things came up so she missed lunch. I figured out that she missed her last celebratory lunch because she got pulled out to meet with me, which made me feel terrible.
“Let me get you lunch!” I implored.
She said, “No! I’m fine, but thank you.”
“How about a coffee?” I inquired, and she smiled—a real smile.
“No you don’t have to,” she said.
Oh, yes I do, I thought. I would do anything for Wendy; you would, too.
When I drove to this interview in my husband’s electric car this morning, I realized that I was driving without having a full charge. I was a little worried that I wouldn’t make it home. It didn’t matter at this point, however, if my car had to be towed home, and this had something to do with the last thing Wendy said to me:
“I’m not losing my kids ever again, to anything, ever. Nobody’s raising my kids but me.”
There is a bond that occurs when someone tells you their story. To see this proud, strong woman who has fought to be at Saint John’s and has earned and deserves all that she has achieved: her kids, a job, independence, friendships, skills, dignity. If all I could offer her on the day she deserved to celebrate was a caramel macchiato, then it would be hers.
Upon my semi-triumphant return (only I knew the circumstances of my peril), Wendy came around the corner holding her daughter in her arms. The pieces of the day were falling into place. I saw her melt into the beautiful bundle that she carried in her arms. When I drove away, I saw Wendy sitting with her little girl on the steps sharing the breakfast sandwich, chocolates and caramel macchiato I had brought her. It was her cherished time.
I like to think that a little of Wendy’s energy helped me make it home safely that night. What I know is that her drive and determination will propel her forward toward success and allow her to keep the promise she made that day behind the red door of Saint John’s.
Blog by Guest Writer Kara Turner,
Saint John’s Program for Real Change volunteer
and lifestyle blogger at The Page Turner