by Yvette Venson
Yvette Venson describes feeling invisible during the years she was forced to deal with being homeless with three children. It was a cruel way to learn about the politics of poverty in America; but from those lessons, she has created ways to assist herself and other community members at her St. Aubin Square housing complex on the near East Side.
“Seasonal Sandboxes” is Venson’s first effort to respond to problems facing her community through her organization, Between the Lines, which addresses the specific needs of people who have been cut off from institutional assistance. Venson says that in 2006, state programs cancelled cash assistance that helped people obtain basic life essentials. Between the Lines raises funds to purchase necessities, or “Seasonal Sandboxes”, for program participants, while helping them create a yearlong schedule of personal goals. Venson points out that often people are just one step away from getting back on track financially and, most important, getting back in touch with their life goals.
“When I communicated with people,” Venson told Riverwise, “I realized that everyone had a talent. Everybody had some type of gift, but they just couldn’t get to it because they couldn’t get past their basic needs to really focus on anything else.”
Yvette Venson writes about her recent struggles and how she has emerged with a new vision for her community and herself — the kind of human being she wants to become. She is offering a new model for transmitting self-empowerment within her community. Her article concludes with an excerpt from her poem, “Lost and Found,” from the collection, Chasing Butterflies in the Age of Social Media, published by TB Holmes in 2016.
I sat and reminisced on the young girl that longed to visit the rainforest, the girl that thought archaeologists were some of the most amazing people. One day this young girl might become one, this girl who read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I recall praying at that very moment to become as wise as Maya Angelou someday. Someday that little girl was going to shake Ms. Angelou’s hand and say “thank you.”
I sat at Belle Isle on a hot summer’s day watching my children play in the same sand that my sister and I used to make angels in. I observed their so-called adventure. For them, this was everything — to nap under the trees and go out to swim again. Yes, for them it was the best vacation ever: One hotel after another, and all the microwave hamburgers and junk food that a bridge card could buy.
I myself was armed and dangerous. I was armed with regret, depression, hopelessness, anger and a pill or two in hopes of simply feeling nothing. I was homeless with three beautiful children that only I could see. To the world and those around us, we didn’t exist. I didn’t exist! I couldn’t even write, not that I felt my voice would be heard anyway. In those moments, it took everything out of me not to take my children for a very long swim. Who would even notice us? Another statistic — which I was already. Yet my heart, with all its broken pieces, knew that if nothing else, my children deserved a chance at life. I owed them a chance at life.
Therefore, for one complete year, my Aunt Sherrion Chambliss and her husband Joseph Chambliss (may he rest in peace) kept my children. They allowed me an opportunity to pick myself up off the ground and stand tall, as I once had. I recall my aunt telling me “Boo-bie (that’s my nick name), everybody has their turn, it’s just not yours yet.” I recall my heart breaking, although I knew my children would be more than safe and taken care of. I felt empty leaving them. I wondered if my Mom had felt a similar pain when my grandmother took on caring for me. I recognized the cycle, and I refused to be a part of it.
A friend that I had known for a short while took me in. His only requirement was that I go back to school. He helped me kick my habit and enroll in Wayne County Community College. I can still recall waking up around three months into the year and suddenly being able to feel the sunlight on my skin. I recall going for a walk with him and it was as if I had been granted a new set of eyes, a new sense of smell. And although I was still ashamed of myself and some of my decisions, I began to realize that there must have been a reason. That reason was what I was searching for.
By the end of that year, I was placed in Section 8 housing, a low-income support program. I was given keys to a three-bedroom townhouse, fully equipped with all appliances. My uncle never got to see it. Before he passed, my aunt let him know that yes, I had a great home and the kids were very happy. Funny thing is, I stayed at my aunt’s for a month in complete disbelief that this home was really mine. After that month, my children and I packed our clothes, my cousin’s old bed and some lawn chairs. We were finally home!
Shortly after the move, my sister, Tracy Rex, connected me with a new organization called Humble Design. Treger Strasberg and her amazing staff furnished my entire home. I can still see the smile on my son’s face as he rolled around on what he called our comfy couch. I was elated, to say the least. Everything was coming together in such an amazing way. I was still in school and doing work study for income. I could almost taste life against my tongue again.
Yet with life comes the ups and the downs. I became too sick to complete school, which stopped all income (breast cancer scare). Next I dated a person who was completely and horrifically charming. It wasn’t long before the horrific became more prominent than his charm. Let’s put the icing on the cake: My car died on me as well. I found myself living off food stamps. A beautiful home, but hardly any cleaning supplies. Consistently running out of hygiene items. Hair a mess, children growing out of clothes faster than I could blink. By this time, school was waiting around the corner (although at the time I had no idea that it literally was).
I was introduced to the James and Grace Lee Boggs School by a knock on my door and a small brochure. I read it later that night. The next morning, I researched Grace and Jimmy Boggs. I learned as much as I could about them and place-based education. Next was Open House. I walked up to this small, very plain- looking building. My children and I walked inside to smiling faces, murals on the walls, art hanging from the ceiling like clouds from the sky. I had been immersed in a place where genuinely caring individuals existed. I was meant to be there at that moment. At that moment, not only had my children found a school, I had discovered a second home.
Stephanie Chang asked me if I would like to help them with an initiative to build a relationship between the school and its surrounding neighborhood. This turned into my working hand-in-hand with Laura Depalma, an intern at the school. Laura and all the staff encouraged and guided me into community organizing. We held community meetings, in hopes of finding out the history of the area, along with what improvements residents felt were needed. We even planned and succeeded in turning the school into a hair salon, so kids in the area could get free hair-dos.
These moments were magical. I was given my miracle wrapped in the form of inspiration. I was writing again, while Between the Lines was slowly being built up from my soul, to my heart, and into my mind. I noticed that the struggle with homelessness had cut very deep and left an invisible scar. I was afraid that I might not be good enough to start and run my own program.
I looked back on a stone I got with a card from a friend when I had become unsure of my organizing skills. It stated, “If you don’t leap, you’ll never know how it is to fly.” And so I leaped! I’m promoting Between the Lines, creating business cards, and slowly building relationships with those who believe in building community. My dream and my heart’s desire is to look back years from now at some of the people in the program picking up their paycheck from Between the Lines. It’s been written that, “Some of the most astounding stories can only be read with your heart.” Let us read with our hearts.
“I needed desperately to feel the grass beneath my feet. Needed to see the blades in their subtle shades of green emerging between the white and brown texture of my toes. The feeling of the earth beneath the grass was sure to ground me. Next I needed Van Gogh to take to the sky, and create for me my very own starry night. I needed a masterpiece wrapped inside a miracle, laid gently onto the scent of fresh raindrops; all of which I use to write to.”
Excerpt from “Lost and Found,” by Yvette Venson