If grace is meeting someone where they are, and transporting them to somewhere else, then Melissa is in the grace business. Bright twinkling eyes, warm smile and welcoming demeanor, her background and life experiences have led “Melissa” to be empathetic and understanding for her students and their families who are experiencing homelessness.
Seven years ago, she found herself suddenly homeless and unemployed. When her son was three weeks old, “the altercation happened – it was the last of many,” involving her son’s father. Melissa left and stayed with her sister, who became afraid for her safety as well.
So her sister could feel safe again, Melissa left and moved into a temporary homeless shelter for 30 days. Then another and another.
“I was so depressed,” she said talking about her experience as a homeless mother of a newborn. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to come from being not pregnant, having a job, having my own place; to meeting this man, being beat on, getting pregnant, not having a job, not having an education, not having nothing. My family was afraid of dealing with me because of this man.”
In a matter of months, Melissa’s life had changed and she spun into depression.
Soon she noticed everywhere she went, she heard about Our House. After moving a few times, she found her way to Our House and was quickly welcomed into the community.
“When I got to Our House they pretty much held my hand through everything. I got him (my son) into Our House. It was just amazing. I’ve been working with kids for years,… I knew what quality looked like and the first day I was so comfortable. I was excited – I knew right off it was going to be the greatest fit for the both of us.”
It was a great fit. While her son was in the early learning center, Melissa’s Family Advocate at Our House helped her through the process of earning her GED, finding housing and enrolling in the Our House’s Child Development Associate (CDA) program.
“I thought it was going to be like a college,” Melissa said. “[But] when I got there they had play dough at the table and little toys.” The rigorous five month program, held in the Decatur location, required grit and determination to finish. Her class, which started with over 20 students, graduated about half of those enrolled.
Melissa said she cried during her graduation speech. “I never in my life started something major and finished it. It wasn’t easy, but the program kept me there.” Even though Melissa was still struggling with depression, and had trouble finding traditional housing, she persevered and graduated.
Her pride is obvious and reflects the hard work she put in to earn her degree and her current dedication to her students. Melissa interned at the Atlanta location and was hired by Our House to serve as a teacher.
Seven years after she had to flee with her three week old baby, Melissa is living life on her own terms. “I’m now in my own apartment and [my son] goes to a charter school.”
Our House continued to work with Melissa through the transition as she gained employment and moved out on her own. “I had to learn how to handle money again,” she said. “Our House worked to help me manage my money, I was able to sustain employment and my own place. We are good now.”
Now that Melissa is “a completely different person” she is using her compassion and understanding to help others who are experiencing homelessness.
She loves teaching at the Atlanta location, “I feel like I am doing so much for the community, for the families too. It makes them feel comfortable when they hear that I’ve been through the program. That I’ve been homeless and that I’m doing great.” Melissa feels that they understand “you can use the experience and be better than what you were.”
The hardest part of teaching these children is seeing “the stress on the kids, it brings me back, it brings me back,” she said with tears in her eyes. She recently had a four year old child tell her about the police coming the night before and taking someone to jail. “These are things you should not witness – he was so stressed – during dramatic play he just told me all of this,” Melissa said
“The hardest part is to see the stress and struggle,” she said, “but we are here to help them,” she said with determination. Melissa knows that by giving families a shelter to live and an education to thrive, we meet them where they are at that particular moment and help them rise up to a new level.
– By Jackie Cushman