Originally from St. Croix on the U.S. Virgin Islands, Deja has good memories of living with her mom and five siblings. “Growing up on the islands was nice – playing all day long, running through the grass.” But, by the time she reached her sixth birthday, her carefree life had changed with a move to Miami, Florida. Her two oldest siblings stayed with family on the island and she quickly became in charge of caring for her three younger siblings while her mom worked very long hours. Even though she was only six, Deja was in charge of cooking, cleaning, caring for her siblings and running the household while her mom was away. “I had to be an adult,” explains Deja, “It was stressful and I missed a lot of school.”
At 14, feeling overstressed and unhappy, Deja asked to move in with her aunt in Boston. There she focused on school and enjoyed reading and math. She was looking forward to high school graduation and thought she was going to college until her aunt told her she could not afford the tuition for both Deja and her cousin. “I was in shock,” says Deja “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.”
Lured by the flashy signs and the promise of good money, Deja decided to go into exotic dancing as a way to support herself. She liked dance and thought it would be fun, but it was not easy dealing with strange men and the women around her using drugs. “I wondered how my life turned this way. I quickly realized that everyone is not your friend,” Deja warns.
At the same time, Deja’s relationship with her high school boyfriend was starting to get rough. He was unhappy that she did not go to college and was himself involved with gang life and “running the streets.” He was jealous about the attention she got from dancing but also liked the money coming in. The relationship, fueled with alcohol and substance abuse, started getting more violent. After the birth of her two sons, Troy and Jimmy, things got worse. After a violent argument Deja called the police for help and that’s when CPS got involved in their lives.
Then, one day on the way home from her son’s birthday party and eight months pregnant with her daughter, Nyasia, another violent argument started and Deja tried to jump out of the car. A passing motorist called the police and Deja’s husband was arrested. CPS took custody of her boys and they went to live with her aunt. Deja was allowed to retain custody her daughter after her birth but was required to complete multiple classes for a full year before earning custody of her sons.
“I can still see the look on the judge’s face,” explains Deja “He told me I have so many CPS reports that if I come back to court again my kids are going up for adoption!” That warning stayed with her as her husband was released. “We made all the promises to change and not let our relationship get violent, but it started to go that way and he started running the streets again. I was not going to lose my children. I had to make a decision between him and my kids.”
Without help from anyone, or sharing the seriousness of her situation with her family, Deja bought tickets for herself and her children and flew to California. “I prayed a lot about it, and Sacramento was revealed to me. I had never been here before.” Over the next two years they moved from motel to motel, getting some assistance from homeless shelters, and living off Deja’s savings. “It was 11:00 one morning and I had to check out of the motel. I called Maryhouse who had helped us before and they told me about Saint John’s respite service. I called and got in.” Then on Thanksgiving weekend, she was accepted into the vocational program. It was a blessing to get into the program that she had just learned about by chance.
Now she feels she is learning what God was always trying to tell her. “Sometimes holding on to your old beliefs can be unhealthy, like thinking that you have to stay with a person who is abusive just because you have children together.” Deja feels strongly that she is meant to be a healer. Perhaps that means going into counseling or therapy. She’s not sure where this will lead her, but with her children as her “little motivators” and Saint John’s very supportive staff, she’s not in denial about her situation any more. She knows now that she needs to be in control of her situation and focus on taking care of herself and her kids first.
Deja has recently been hired full time by Metro PCS and is slated to graduate from Saint John’s Employment Training Program in December. She will be singing “Could You” by Pink alongside her friend Tiara S., also a client at Saint John’s, at Party for Change on November 2!
By Mary Hastings, Creative Services and Communications Specialist