There is a Walmart parking lot in North Sacramento where Erika and her 12 year-old daughter Gabby spent some nights. They had free Wi-Fi and Erika would let Gabby play on her phone to pass the time. Homeless off and on for almost five years, every day was an exercise in survival. Erika and Gabby would slip into the bathroom at Walmart to wash up, hoping none of the store employees would notice. But sometimes, they would notice and that was hard.
A group of homeless men also slept nearby. The men were surprisingly kind to her and Gabby. They would give Erika tips on where to get canned food and find recyclables to get a little money. It had been exceptionally hot those months, as it sometimes can be in Sacramento. Gabby hated bugs, but there was no getting around having to roll the windows down in their white 1997 Toyota corolla, that now doubled as their bedroom. The nights were balmy and sometimes just too stifling to bear. They had all of their belongings stashed in the back seat so Gabby slept on the passenger side of the car next to her mom. Sleep, however, never came easily to Erika. Not for a long time now.
How did she end up here? The cycle of abuse started early for Erika. She remembers her mother putting on makeup to hide the bruises that Erika’s father had given her. When Erika was 15, she was raped by a family friend. “My mom didn’t believe me,” says Erika. The devastation she felt is still apparent today. Compounding her already fragile state, Erika found out she was pregnant. Her mother was furious and forced Erika to have an abortion. Erika’s relationship with her mother had always been tenuous but things were never the same after that.
At 17, Erika fell in love with a boy she met in high school. He was a football player and sweet to her at first, but it didn’t last long. Soon after, he started becoming violent. Still, Erika stayed with him. She became pregnant at 18 with her son and a daughter three years later. Against her better judgement, she ended up marrying the father of her children. Day after day, for 16 years, she endured his physical and emotional abuse. One day, she decided that she finally had had enough. She left her husband. But, because he had all the money, power, and control in the relationship, she lost custody of her kids and was left with nothing. She hit rock bottom. “I wanted to die,” says Erika, holding back tears.
Soon, Erika was pregnant again. With this baby, Erika knew things had to be different. She had already lost two kids due to this vicious cycle of abuse. She wasn’t going to lose a third. She wanted more for her daughter. She even tried to make amends with her mother; moving back in with her so baby Gabby would have some semblance of stability. The move, however, proved to be short-lived. They went to live with a friend who promised them a place to stay so Erika could get back on her feet. That didn’t last either. They never knew where they would end up next. Every time Erika thought things were settling down, the rug was pulled out from under her.
So now, she and Gabby were on their own and sleeping in their car. Fortunately, a woman at church told her about Saint John’s Program for Real Change. She prayed Saint John’s would be the answer to reclaiming her life. And, it was.
June 20, 2017. That was the day she got the call. She and Gabby made it into Saint John’s. “It was like winning the lottery!” says Erika. “It was the best day ever.” The news came just in time. “We were down to our last dime and our last gallon of gas,” recalls Erika. She knew it was now or never.
Erika credits two motivating factors for turning her life around: her daughter Gabby and Saint John’s Program for Real Change. She knows the cycle of abuse has to end with her. “I want my daughter to be a strong, independent woman. I want her to know she can do anything she sets her mind to,” says Erika. This is what drives her to put everything she has into her work in the program at Saint John’s.
Nine months into the program and she has already accomplished so much. Erika is working in on-the-job training at Plates Cafe and Catering, as well as Plates Midtown where she is acquiring valuable skills to help build her resume. She has completed the Job Readiness program that Saint John’s offers and is moving forward in hopes of finding employment soon. Because giving back is so important to Erika, she would like to work with the elderly in a caregiving role. For the first time in her life, Erika believes that she deserves more.
She is on her way to rebuilding her life and even has a renewed relationship with her two older children. Erika is expecting her first grandchild in April! Gabby is a healthy and happy sixth grader who loves science and aspires to be a doctor one day. Erika has become an amazing role model for Gabby: because she sees her mom working hard and striving for more, Gabby is pushing herself to be better.
Erika can barely contain the excitement in her voice when talking about the future. The deep appreciation she feels toward Saint John’s for helping her find her courage to move forward is immeasurable. “Saint John’s saved my life,” says Erika. “I believe in this program because it works. It’s made me a better me.”
Blog by Guest Writer Gade Hamilton
Saint John’s Program for Real Change Volunteer