I met Jennifer after she had finished a shift managing some of the other ladies working in the residential campus kitchen…..hot and tired, she had an air of calm confidence that impressed me immediately. Here was a smart lady who, at 42, finally knew what she had to do to move forward in her life.
Pregnant at 15 with son Adrien, married at 16 and divorced at 17, Jennifer actually managed to hold down a job, keep an apartment and go to trade school for computer accounting. For the next four years, she worked at and became a manager at Jaspers and also paid off her trade school loan. But she became pregnant at 21 with baby Tyra. Born with several heart defects, Tyra underwent two heart surgeries but, tragically, died from an infection at two months old. Jennifer’s downhill spiral into drugs came with the death of that tiny baby.
For the next 20 years, chronic addiction and homelessness became the norm. Selflessly, however, Jennifer gave guardianship for her young son, Adrien, to her mother….he is successfully working and married with children – Jennifer’s grandchildren – of his own. He has the life that Jennifer says she could have had. Eventually, Jennifer married her long-time best friend, Julius, and had three children with him, but the relationship was an unhealthy one of drug abuse, joblessness and evictions. Jennifer says that “it was easy to do wrong, and hard to do good.” Their erratic life pattern became “normal.” Their children, Asia, Jordan and Julian, have lived a life of, as Jennifer puts it, “chronic turmoil.” Ironically, the “best day of her life” was the day in November of 2017, when CPS came to her home and arrested her and her husband for drug possession and child endangerment. Sitting in the back of the patrol car on the way to jail is an image seared into Jennifer’s brain. She realized that God had taken her this low so she could see that her life – and her children’s lives – were a mess, and she needed to change.
Enrolling in a residential program after leaving jail, Jennifer worked on herself and became drug-free. But leaving that program brought new fears; where was she going to go now? She knew that going back to her husband was not an option since he was still using drugs. Her mom had taken the children for a while, but that relationship was greatly strained, so she needed a fresh start in a safe community. That’s when Jennifer said “God sent her a friend” that talked about Saint John’s Program for Real Change.
Here at Saint John’s, Jennifer is moving toward her future – saving money, learning job skills, beginning to know herself – maybe for the first time – and loving having her kids here with her. She smiles broadly as she says she is so thankful to Saint John’s, saying “God works in such great ways.” She has found her long lost “work ethic,” is feeling real feelings now, and is hopeful for a good job with the State of California, a modest apartment and a car…no more bus rides. She is not afraid of the future but excited for it.
When I asked Jennifer if she could go back, what would she do differently, her answer so surprised me. She said that when baby Tyra died, she went into deep despair and contemplated suicide. She says that, in a strange way, the drugs allowed her to exist, and be numb to all feelings for over 20 years. She believes the grace of God has brought her here. Articulate and comfortable with her feelings now, Jennifer will walk the stage on Thursday for her high school diploma with her kids watching. Jennifer, the young girl of 15, is now 42; she has lived a life of chaos, but now is on the path to success and happiness. Her smile tells it all…life will be new, and it will be easier these days to do good and harder to do wrong. This new lady is beginning to know and love herself. Ask her now, what her favorite movie is….she may finally have an answer.
By Ellen Gemma, Guest Blogger and Volunteer, Former Asst. Principal, Jesuit High School, Former Principal, St. John the Evangelist School