I grew up all over Chicago. The Southside until I was sixteen, the west side a little later. Things were never good in my neighborhood. There was always a lot of violence, a lot of negative things going on.
Whenever things were hard for me, I would sing my troubles away. Music has always been the most enjoyable thing in my life. I have a deep faith in God, and my favorite song is “The Greatest Love of All.” The message of the song is that you have to believe in yourself, love yourself and lead yourself in the direction that you choose to go in, not the direction that other people try to influence you to go in. That you have to see the positive things and the beauty in yourself first. And then you just let that emanate into the world.
Not that it’s always been easy for me to do. I’ve had a lot of troubles in my life, starting when I was placed in foster care. It was right when I hit puberty. I was living with strangers basically, people who really didn't have my best interest in mind. I don't even understand why these people took me in; they didn't really treat me well. They always treated their family members much better than me. It could be little things, like the amount of clothing they would give me. Or bigger things, like the amount of love and attention. I developed problems with my self-esteem. I was very depressed.
And then I met Dina. She was really my role model, because by that point my mom wasn’t around, even though she had done some positive things in my life. Dina worked at the foster agency, and all the teenagers gravitated toward her. When I felt really down and out in my foster home and ran away, I lived with her. She was a very positive influence. She was college educated.
She instilled in me value of education and the value of just being a strong woman. There are countries where women are not free to express themselves; they're very much controlled by men. That's just their life they can't get away from that. In the United States, women, we have our challenges. Life doesn't always treat us fairly. We have the space and room here in this country to accomplish whatever we would like to accomplish. And I think Dina really showed me that.
Living with her was the first time I experienced what it’s like to be in the middle class. I went to one of the top schools in the city. I played volleyball, basketball, and ran track, which I loved. That was another way I got myself away from my problems – playing sports. I was able to express myself and show that I could meet challenges. That was really inspiring for me and helped me cope with a lot of my self-esteem issues. Between sports and living with Dina, I did overcome a lot of the problems I was having.
Growing up in foster care taught me that life will always bring about challenges, that there will be struggle and I will make mistakes. I'm not perfect. Because of my background, I believed that trouble was inevitable. But I learned that the upside to struggle is you know you have the mentality, intelligence, and the perseverance to get through those challenges. And that's why college was so great for me.
My college experience was interesting because there were times I sort of dropped out, took breaks, then came back, and got serious. I started at a junior college on the Southside, where I met a lady named Melanie who was an English professor. She was very stern and strict. She always had expectations for her students. She would tell me, “If it's not right, you'd be doing it over. I expect excellence from you, and I will not take anything less." That was my first experience meeting someone who believed in me. And because she believed in me so much, it made me believe in me. She made me believe I was capable of performing the way she thought I could.
I didn’t get to study with her for very long, because around that time, some mental health issues started to emerge. I had a mental illness, and my mental illness was untreated. I experienced breakdowns that were very difficult to deal with. I had to drop out of college a few times and went to different schools, although I still persevered through that and got my bachelor’s degree. I went on to a master’s program, but I dropped out again because of those issues.
When I left college the first time I focused on a lot on getting treatment. I didn’t work while I was getting that sorted out. I couldn't really accept the fact that I had a mental illness, so I really did not take medication like I should have. I got into some trouble with the law – that was a lesson learned. I saw how dangerous life could be when you choose to take the wrong path. When you choose to hang around people who sell drugs or who like to fight, just people who have no plans for the future. I didn't want to be one of those people so I took myself back to another junior college. I stayed with my sister, who was trying to help me with my mental illness. She really stood by my side starting when I was younger, so I'm very appreciative of that. It took a long time to get myself together mentally.
Things started changing even more when Sharon and I got together. She was very adamant about me taking the right medication, and being mentally stable. She helped me a lot; she found me a psychiatrist and a psychologist. She has been very helpful when it comes to my maintaining mental stability, because she really looks out for me when it comes to my mental health. She was one of the reasons I got over my challenges. And also my faith in God. I know that it's because of God that I'm still alive.
My troubles with debt started with a promotional credit card. I was in graduate school at the time, staying in a cooperative house where we all shared expenses, shared chores, things like that. I went to my mailbox one day and there it was, the envelope. All I had to do to get $500 was get a pin number and activate the card. That was a lot of money to me because I was pretty broke, and I spent it right away. I didn’t have the intention of paying it back because I knew I couldn’t afford to pay it back. I got more credit cards after that. I was manic; I spent uncontrollably. I ended up having about $20,000 in debt.
At the same time, I was really making progress in my life. I was with Sharon, and starting to learn about how important and meaningful a good relationship is. I also finally finished my master’s degree, in Afro-American Studies. Where I come from, not a lot of people get to experience graduating from college of any kind, let alone a master’s degree. I would say the the proudest day of my life was getting my diploma with Sharon and my daughter Maria cheering for me.
But I still had the credit card debt, and I knew that it would really impact my future. My wages would be garnished at any job that I got, and I didn’t want that. I wanted to be able to have a good career, support myself, and provide for my family. I had never really thought about bankruptcy, although I always knew what it was from playing Monopoly as a kid. I did not feel a negative stigma around it, though, because my main concern was being out of debt. I also didn’t have any fear about it because I have been black my whole life and there's stigma that comes with that. I really think once you have that experience, nothing really is scarier.
I'm very thankful that Sharon dialled 211, the community services line, and they transferred her to Upsolve. I was just glad there was something I could do about my debt. I had a wonderful experience with the service. People were very kind and had a lot of patience with me. Any questions I had, those questions were answered. The process was really beautiful because it seemed as if Upsolve had my best interests in mind. And that they really wanted to help me with my debt. That's just a wonderful thing to have, an organization to help me with something that I probably would have struggled with for the rest of my life.
When I finally got my discharge letter, I was ecstatic. I said, “Sharon, we did it!” and gave her a big hug and a kiss. I told her how much I loved her. If it weren’t for Sharon, I probably never would have filed for bankruptcy.
I would tell anyone who is considering bankruptcy that it is really a process. It takes some work. But once you do it, you don't have to worry about your debt anymore. You can start that part of your life over, and make better decisions.
It really feels like a new beginning. I do a lot of things differently now. I save money and don't buy as much as I used to. I'm more frugal. Being debt-free makes me very optimistic because I see the possibility of one day having financial stability. You never know in life when there might be a situation where you might need some extra cash. I finally believe that one day I might get a decent job, and be able to keep my pay.
My dream is probably to be a professor, because I think professors can influence people to find their best selves. They bring out the best in people and that's what I want to do. I want to bring out the best in people. I want to be like my professor Melanie, to say to a student, “I expect excellence from you,” and watch that student grow and develop as a scholar. The whole transformation is wonderful. I want to make that happen for people.
But right now I’m just getting things back on track. I am not working at the moment but I’m in the process of volunteering for a tutoring program, working with students. And I also have worked as a special education assistant, helping teachers in the classroom with students who were troubled or needed extra help. I really want to help children. If I could speak to my younger self, I would say: you know what the right thing to do is, your instinct will tell you what the right decision is in most situations. Just focus on education, and focus on being around positive people, who motivate you to do better.
And of course, I still sing. In church for Christmas programs and black history celebrations. I sing all the time. No matter what happens, I’ll always be singing.