As my birthday approached, I found myself reflecting on my life. I remembered the excitement of turning 16, then 21, then it was 30 and 40, and now I’m just a couple years shy of my 7th decade of life. It seems like the years moved with warp speed, but as Dr. Maya Angelou said, “I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”
I’ve talked often about growing up in Hannibal, MO., a small Midwestern town. Hannibal was steeped in racism, but because it was so commonplace, we didn’t even realize it, or perhaps our parents did, but it was just easier to stay in your place and not make a fuss. There was no NAACP branch in Hannibal, no Urban League, or Boys & Girls Club. I don’t ever remember a march or sit-In to challenge segregated schools or inferior housing when I was a child.
Our family dynamics growing up was not unique to many families today, but in the ’50s and ’60s, most of my friends came from two-parent homes. My mother was widowed with two children at the age of twenty-two. By the age of thirty-four, she had added six more, including me, to the bunch. She virtually raised us alone; none of the fathers stuck around. Like most children, who have a missing parent, I dealt with the feelings of abandonment and loss. After a while, I began telling people that my father was dead because he pretty much was to me. It was not until I was an adult that we connected.
There was not a lot of emphasis on higher education. We had no Black teachers or counselors in the high school to guide Black students. If you didn’t have a role model in your family or life, you would likely not strive for anything more than what you saw every day. Much of my exposure and, I dare say, education was because of my curiosity and insatiable love of books.
I knew that the world was bigger than what Hannibal had to offer. But without much guidance, I made the choice many young girls make and became pregnant before I was mentally or emotionally mature, and I got married at nineteen. By the time I was twenty-five, we knew the marriage was a mistake. I had married someone who was even more emotionally damaged than I was. So, at twenty-six, I became a single mom, raising my daughter with very little support from her dad. She grew up to be a strong, beautiful woman and gave me one of my most precious gifts in my grandson, who has also gifted me with a beautiful granddaughter and two precious great-grandsons.
My grandson attended a small Christian school from kindergarten through 8th grade. In 2004, he was going to go to public high school, and I had some anxiety. That same year there had been a shooting in one of the high schools. I knew these were critical years, and the wrong choices could be life-changing.
Those early teens are the years kids are trying to figure things out; when they think their parents know nothing, and they struggle with self-esteem and fitting in. I felt a tug to do something to guide and encourage him and the other kids his age. I pulled together some friends, and that following year, we hosted our first Hope Renewed Youth Conference.
After a couple of years, we incorporated, and for twelve years, we hosted an annual 3-day event for kids ages 12-18. I challenge you to find a Black person in this community, who could teach, talk, sing, draw, cook or drive that did not support us. Since 2017 we began offering scholarships to students going into the fields of education and law enforcement.
In 2014, I received a call from Carl Cannon, asking me to come talk with him. He asked me to work with him and coordinate a new concept he was adding to the ELITE Youth Outreach Program called “Don’t Start.” I had retired, and my husband had passed away suddenly in 2010, so I agreed to work part-time with ELITE.
Even though the original program I was hired for was shelved after a year, when the grant was not renewed, I am still with ELITE. Today, I do a little of everything, from being Carl’s administrative assistant, coordinator of programs, to fundraising.
The vision Carl had for ELITE has evolved over the years. In the beginning, it was about giving high school students a healthy occupation of time by providing them soft skills to obtain summer jobs. Today, ELITE has a touch on kids from K-12th grade, a Re-Entry Program, and a new program called Game Changers. Most of the Game Changers are former incarcerated men and women who successfully completed the ELITE Re-Entry Program. They are subsequently hired by Peoria Park District and work with some of the most challenging students in the public schools. Those students, who make it hard for you to help them, but who need the help the most.
Founding Hope Renewed and working with the ELITE Program at first glance could appear to be happenstance, but as I looked back over my life, it became very clear, there was a plan. A God plan… So much of my story, like many of our stories, is too painful to share in this piece. But when you are able to use those painful parts of your life to tell a hurting child or a damaged adult that there is hope, and there is life beyond whatever they’re going through, that’s when you know there was purpose in every experience you go through.
I know now that those experiences, those painful events, those losses were necessary. It’s in those experiences you learn to say I’m sorry, you learn to forgive, you learn empathy, you learn not to be judgmental, you learn to pray, and you learn who God really is.