“You give it your all and it works; it changes your life.”
Let’s face it… we may have certain images in mind when we think of “the homeless.” Stereotypes are part of life, but, so often they simply categorize without helping us to look deeper. Such is the case when you meet Mandy, a single mom with two teenage boys, Robby (15) and Caleb (13). Wearing a pretty dress and sharing a huge smile, she met with me to share her story… and that of her sons. She was particularly excited because she had just signed the lease on a new apartment for herself and her boys, as she will be graduating from Saint John’s next month after an eight-month stay. What an amazing transformation she – and her two boys – have made in such a short time, as detailed in an earlier blog written just six weeks into her stay: https://saintjohnsprogram.org/1-picture1000-words/.
Leaving a dangerous life of abuse from her former husband in Maryland, Mandy moved west to California with her boys, towing a small trailer with little money and only the bare necessities to start over (more on that is detailed in the previous blog post). After moving from a “boyfriend’s” home to a converted shed for a few months, she and her boys found themselves living in their car in the Walmart parking lot for a few months before they made their way to Saint John’s. After eight months in the program, Mandy says she has “finally had time to work on the demons and causes” that led her to stay in an abusive relationship for so long and to “deal with my past”… also one of horrific childhood abuse. She found a reason to “love myself”… and she worked very hard.
I smiled so often as I learned of the strength and intelligence of this woman; Mandy, I discovered, was valedictorian of her high school class, has a BA in Education, and multiple medical and fire tech certifications. She’s a bright and hard-working lady who has recently been hired as an emergency medical technician for Bay Medic Ambulance (in fact, on just her second day on the job, her quick actions saved the life of a 75-year-old man!). She has plans to continue her studies in this area by attending American River College’s paramedic certification program, and ultimately, would like to become a flight medic. Clearly, there is an inner strength that has propelled her ahead —you are soaring high, Miss Mandy!
What, however, would it be like to be her sons? Robby was with her for our visit, and, though quiet at first, he soon showed that he had the same strength as his mom, as well as her quick smile. Neatly dressed with short hair and glasses, he eventually became relaxed and talkative. Life for him has been one of protecting his mom and his younger brother (who is autistic) from physical and emotional abuse. He kept any worries about his own emotional well-being away from his mom, the classic oldest child who was becoming the protector.
Life at Saint John’s was initially hard for him as there was no freedom to come and go, there were time schedules, lots of structure – everything the average teenager resists. But, as you might expect, Robby saw all of this as a necessity in order to, once again, support his mom, and to see the bigger picture for him and his family. So he dug deep and hung in there.
Starting new, and late, at Elk Grove High School last year, Robby found a community that welcomed him, one that gave him a fresh start and new friends. He excelled academically, joined the school band as a trumpet player, and he found a Boy Scout troop for him and his brother. Robby is already an Eagle Scout – a feat he accomplished when he was only 13! Here, clearly, is a young man with brains and character who will be a success in the years ahead; he already is, by most standards. He wants to get a job when he turns 16, and go to college, and thinks he might like to study engineering. His brother Caleb too, is doing well; for the first time, he is actually enjoying school and even making honor roll at his new junior high. The stress of the past years has begun to lose its hold on the boys. And, when Mandy briefly considered going home to family in Maryland, Robby convinced her to stay and be strong, and to continue the hard work for their future. He and his brother have friends, have security and happiness. Robby, the old soul, can finally begin to be a kid and not the family protector. He now has a mom who is happy and excited for herself and her family. Saint John’s Program for Real Change has worked, once again, for a family Mandy says… “you give it your all and it works; it changes your life.”
Stereotypes, we know, are too simple… clearly Mandy and her boys are proof positive that there are stories for so many people that give us pause. Hard-working, resilient, and bright, this trio shows us that we need to look past assumptions. My mother-in-law used to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” How true it is. Mandy, Robby and Caleb could have been any one of us.
By Ellen Gemma
Guest Blogger and Volunteer
Former Asst. Principal, Jesuit High School
Former Principal, St. John the Evangelist School