Turning the Table on Tragedy

“We came to the Grand Rapids area about seven years ago to escape.  To hide really.”

Monica, a mother of three, went on in grave detail about her challenging past.  Her childhood shrouded with abuse and exploitation.  She ran away at age twelve, only to live on the streets of Chicago.  It didn’t take long for Monica to learn that this was not living; this was surviving on the streets.  But, as horrible as it was, she wasn’t locked in closets or in rooms with the windows nailed shut.  She didn’t have to watch drug deals or tricks being turned in her own home, and they could not hurt her.

Simple things like clothes, school, friends, and nutritious meals were not in her picture.  Monica wanted more.  She needed more.  She attempted to enroll herself in school, however, a child without an adult or permanent address was a red flag. Authorities were forced to return her to the home she longed to escape.

Drugs, homelessness, and prostitution plagued her existence until, at age 18, a woman pulled up to her corner.

“This angel invited me to her home for a hot meal, a hot shower and a warm bed.  After that first night, she made it her mission to take care of me and another girl from the street.  It took 18 months of tough love to get clean.  We did it the old fashioned way, but she was there through it all.  I remember her using a straw to slowly drip water into my mouth when I was in the worst of it.  That was more than 27 years ago.  I am still thankful today.”

After receiving intensive therapy and having her young daughter Karly, Monica was encouraged to try to make peace with her mother.  Her feelings were rejected.  Monica’s mother attempted to alienate young Karly and even sought custody of her.  Feelings from her childhood flooded back.  She couldn’t imagine Karly cowering in a corner of a hazy, dimly lit room where she once sat while drugs and sexual favors were easily and openly shared. Monica knew the cycle stopped here.  Now.  The battle went to court.  Hearings were not pretty.  Ultimately, she was granted custody and her mother never pursued visitation. Monica and Karly moved, and never looked back.

As time passed, Monica fell in love, got married, and had Xavier, her healthy and active son.  As a former street kid, life – her life – seemed to be perfect for the first time.  She had a happy marriage, a lovely family, a house… but tragedy loomed.

Now a new family of four, the couple experienced challenges as many new couples do. The way Monica and her husband coped, however, was very different.  Unbeknownst to Monica, her husband was using drugs on the sly.  During one of his highs, he turned on 18-month-old Xavier causing serious and irreversible damage.  It would take the next four years, many hospital visits, doctors and therapists to determine a Traumatic Brain Injury diagnosis.  She could finally get her son the help he needed.

Again, Monica was on her own with two children under the age of five.  They had to leave.  With her children and as much as she could pack, she closed the door on that part of her life.  She was determined to give her children a better life.

Photograph by Janna Salmela

Monica found a job and made some friends.  Every spare moment was spent caring for her kids, but Xavier required more.  More of everything.  More of her time and attention. Sometimes it was more than she felt she could handle.  But, Monica always rose to the challenge.  “I haven’t always made the best choices in my life, but I have always taken responsibility and learned.”

The day her divorce was finalized, it felt like she could breathe for the first time in years.  Although her family would continue to have physical, mental and emotional struggles, Monica stated, “I didn’t know it, but this was just the first of many blessings to come.”

Within the year, Monica gave birth to her son Troy.  She still struggled with her past and PTSD from Xavier’s tragedy.  Now money was tight.  Working became impossible.  Day-to-day survival for her family was Monica’s primary focus.  She didn’t receive child support or alimony.  Her pride and past experiences kept her from seeking help from government agencies.

“In our area, we have lots of places to help people, you just have to know where to look,” Monica explained.  She learned from a neighbor that the food shelf at Second Harvest could help supply some food for her family.   Monica quickly planned a visit with young Troy in tow.  To her surprise it seemed just like a grocery store with fresh produce, canned and dry goods, even meat and dairy.  She was relieved to discover how friendly and helpful the staff was.

It was refreshing to Monica that her children would witness a different “parking lot exchange” from those of her youth.  She went on to explain that if someone received an item that another person could use more, the two would exchange items in the parking lot so both parties would benefit.

“The food shelf really helps stretch our food budget.  We scour ads for price matching, plan our meals and make our shopping lists.  We always try to plan around what is available at the food shelf.  We never waste food,” Monica stated.

Monica continues to utilize resources in our small community, most recently programs through KOOTASCA Community Action. The United Way of 1000 Lakes financially supports the food shelf at Second Harvest and other area food shelves as well as many other community organizations.  Agencies like these formed a web of support around Monica and her family.  “But,” shared Monica, “the Food Shelf remains a huge blessing.”

“I didn’t grow up in a home with a mom, let alone one who taught me about cooking and shopping.  I was just trying to survive.”  Monica shook her head remarking about how things have changed.  “Now I’m the Mom and Troy has become the real chef in the family.  He is teaching me.  He loves cooking and serving it to all of us and he is really good at it.  It may seem weird, but food and this kitchen has really helped bring this family together.”

“We always eat dinner together,” stated Troy. “we aren’t afraid to try new things.  We talk about lots of stuff and we never lie.”

“Food helps our family get stronger.  It does more than fuel our bodies.  We are feeding our family’s network – our connections with each other – around this table.  Our mealtime is a kind of therapy of us.  I encourage my kids to ask me or tell me anything.  We don’t keep secrets.  This food, this table, has done so much for us.  We are all growing – physically, mentally and emotionally.  We may not have much, but we have this time together.  Many families can’t say that.

“Listening to my kids has brought me into the world they live in today,” Monica reflected.  She has worked hard and has come a long way to provide for her children.  Her family’s life today is a far cry from her family life as a child.  “It makes me look back at all of my ugly past and makes me thankful for the beauty I have today.  Life may not be perfect, but it’s going to be alright.  You just have to step back, clear your mind, and focus on what is truly important – each other.”

United Way of 1000 Lakes fights for the basic needs, education, and health of every person in our community. Every day, United Way carefully stewards contributions to make the greatest impact in peoples’ lives. United Way unites against hunger by investing in our area’s food shelves, providing more than two months of food for close to 7,000 people visiting Deer River, Bigfork, Nashwauk, and Grand Rapids.