This weekend Lodi House hosted their annual fundraiser, Be Amazing. This is the first year I went, and wow. I left that event feeling like I was part of something. I walked to my car, mascara a mess (they’re doing powerful work and you felt, I teared up a bit), texting the women in my life saying, “Next year we’re buying a table and you HAVE to come!” I’ve never seen an organization tell their a story the way the women did that afternoon. Lodi House brought in 250 Lodi women together at the First Baptist Church, and shared the stories of the women whose lives have been changed by the program. The event was beautiful and the star of the show was Donna, a Lodi House graduate. I want to share her story here because her story shows how much beauty and hope Lodi House gives women in our community. Her story is the perfect example of how this local nonprofit is changing lives.
Despite being dealt a hand of cards that almost guaranteed failure, today Donna is thriving. She credits much of her success and her happiness to Lodi House. Donna got up on stage with her daughter, Gracie. Gracie is a 11. “My daughter, Gracie, she wanted to say something,” said Donna. “Hi, my name is Gracie,” her daughter started. “And I just wanted to thank Lodi House because now I have a mom to look up to.” Donna had a rough life. “I was born into a life of drugs and alcohol,” she started. “My parents were heroin addicts and from the earliest I can remember my parents were under the influence. My mom used to brag about how when I was only 6 months old she put alcohol in my bottle so I would sleep and she could party all night long.” At 7 years old, both of her parents overdosed in front of her. Donna knew what was going on and was able to get help. The overdose left her parents in a 5 day, drug induced coma. This close brush with death wasn’t enough to deter their addiction and once they were out of the hospital, they continued their drug fueled life style.
Donna spent her early life living with her parents, camped out in parks, living out of cars. She did have one ray of light though, and that was her loving grandparents. When Donna was in 4th grade, CPS took her away from her parents and placed her in the care of her grandparents. Donna thought her horrible life was over, but a year later her grandma died and she was absolutely devastated. She didn’t have the tools to deal with this devastation. She was angry and hurt. Her own addiction started at 11 years old. At 12 she was breaking and entering and stealing cars. In 7th grade she was sent to a Scared Straight program, which instead of inspiring her to change her behavior, gave her a new goal: go to prison. “I thought it was cool. I was so mad at the world I gravitated towards that. At 12 years old I was trying to figure out how to get to prison.” At 13 she started doing meth. Soon she was living back with her mom. When her mom found out she was doing meth, she wasn’t mad. Instead, she wanted in. “The second she found out I was using she wanted in on it… She told me, if you want a roof over your head, then you’ve got to get me high. At 15 years old, I started selling meth and marijuana, because I needed a roof over my head and if I got my mom high she would leave me alone.”
At 19 she moved out. By 25 Donna was making a $1000 or $2000 a week selling drugs, but at this point she had two boys. “I looked at them, and I knew I didn’t want them to look at me the way I looked at my mother. I knew I had to stop. I didn’t know how to stop, but I knew I needed to stop.” Donna moved in with a friend who was clean and was there for about 8 months before her friend’s husband came out of jail, and then he started using so she and her boys left. She eventually found an opportunity through the government that gave her “once in a lifetime” opportunity to live in a hotel for a two of weeks. She jumped on the opportunity and used that time to search for a more permanent shelter. She went to multiple shelters looking for a place to go but she didn’t meet any shelters criteria. She wasn’t a male, she wasn’t a field worker, she couldn’t meet anybody’s criteria. Then, finally, she found Lodi House. Lodi House took her in and gave her the skills she needed to live a healthy and happy life.
“I don’t think Shereen realizes this,” said Donna. Shereen is an employee of Lodi House and has been there since day one. It’s obvious people who have gone through the program love her and gravitate towards her. “I told Shereen this the other day but I think she thought I was kidding. She was my mom,” this was the point Donna started getting choked up. She had been able to share nearly her entire childhood without tears but now her voice started quivering. “I didn’t have a mom, so she taught me how to be a mom. She does this every day so she kind of doesn’t realize it. She gets up every day and does the same thing. Because of Shereen, and because of Lodi House, I know how important it is to get up and cook. To get up and clean. I used to use drugs and get high and do high cleaning. That’s not normal. I learned how to live clean because of Lodi House. The tools that I learned at Lodi House I still use to this day.”
“I walked into Lodi House 29 years old, but I was an 11 year old little girl because I was 11 years old when I started using. Because of Lodi House I stand before you, 12 years sober,” an applause broke out. “I have a college degree, a degree in Criminal Justice,” more applause. “I had carried so much bitterness for so long, because the person who was supposed to be there for me and pick me up when I fell wasn’t there, until I entered Lodi House. And let me tell you, I didn’t trust women and I didn’t like women. The one woman I was supposed to trust I couldn’t trust. But these women taught me how to trust and love other women… Because of Lodi House and the women there, my greatest accomplishments are that I am now a believer in Jesus Christ. My daughter has never seen me under the influence. I’ve been sober her whole life. Because of Lodi House, I am beautiful and I am amazing. Thank you”
There’s so many women in Lodi, each with their own unique story, who credit Lodi House for giving them a new lease on life. So many of the women served by Lodi House have come to Lodi House after hitting their own rock bottom, but a little voice inside them tells them there’s something better out there for them. And they’re right. At the beginning of the program, they played a song called “You’re Gonna Be Ok” and as the song played, a wave of Lodi House graduates and participants walked through the crowd, to the front of the room, carrying signs that read things like, “It’s not the End” “Don’t Give In” and “Don’t Give Up.” These women, most (if not all) of them moms, know they deserve happiness and deserve to dream, and here they are, getting their second chance at a good life. Like Donna, they’ve all had hard lives, but now, thanks to Lodi House, they’re getting the training and the love they need to live a better life. Shelby, the Lodi House CEO shared how their mission helps women so, “They can live their life with purpose and know that their lives matter and their decisions matter. They learn there’s always more to dream for.”
Every journey begins with a single step. That was the theme of this year’s program. Donna’s story shows this. Her first step was wanting a better life for her boys. Some days we take a lot of steps. Some days it’s hard to even take one. But with someone there to love you, guide you, and support you, those steps are easier to take. That’s what Lodi House does. They help the women they serve take those steps to start their journeys toward a future where they can be amazing.
I want to close by sharing something Jenna, the Lodi House therapist, closed her speech with, and encourage you to follow her instruction: “As you leave here today, I want you start thinking about your own journey and where you are in it. It’s never too late to reevaluate, to change, to refocus your energy, to discover a passion you might have. I also want you to think about those around you and where they are in their journey. How can you support those people? We can’t do it alone. It’s not easy. I want you to think of someone right now who is really going through it. Maybe life keeps throwing them curveballs or they just can’t seem to get ahead. What words would speak to them? What would you say? In fact I want you all to do it right now. I want you to think of somebody, maybe it’s someone in this room, maybe it’s more than one person. I want you to send them a message and I want you to let them know it’s going to be okay. It’s not easy and we cannot do it alone. In the end, strong women lift. Let us not forget, we are all walking this journey together.” So get your phone out, send a text, give someone some hope, and be thankful for people like this in our community who are making a difference each day.
For more information on Lodi House, click here.