Debbye grew up in South Central L.A. “I feel like the moral values I grew up with were different than what the other kids had. My mom was strict about things. We lived pretty comfortable. We didn’t have much. It was all my mom could afford,” Debbye recalls. Her dad was never involved in her life. Her mother struggled to raise her and her four siblings alone.
Things didn’t get any easier when Debbye got older. “We were always living in crammed apartments,” she said. “My mom was a great homemaker. She was the best cook I have ever known. I am so grateful for her. She never gave up.”
Some kids rebel in their teenage years, but not Debbye. She didn’t get into trouble and got good grades in school. “Everything started going bad when I became an adult,” Debbye said. “I got caught up with men and made some really bad decisions. That was my downfall. I got pregnant at age 20. I was working, going to school and then, bam! I get pregnant. My mom was really upset.”
The father of her child wasn’t looking to settle down with her. He was 13 years older than Debbye. “It was tough,” she said. “I didn’t see it at the time but, I was already a single mother. When I had the baby, I went home to my mother’s, not to a husband. This situation caused a lot of friction with my mom. I started to feel alone. My son’s father was doing his own thing, living his bachelor life. It was really stressful.”
When her son was 1 year old, his father got joint legal custody. Eventually he became more a part of her son’s life. But then he passed away from cancer when her son was almost 6. “Trying to explain death to a 6 year old was difficult,” Debbye said. “A year later he started having difficulty in school. I didn’t know what to do. They recommended that I get counseling for him and I refused the counseling because I felt like we could work on it together. If I would have said yes to the counseling, it would have been better.”
Debbye was still living at home, but things began to deteriorate and the family decided to part ways. “I had to figure out what we were going to do,” she said. “I was living from house to house, staying with friends while I tried to figure things out.” This went on for about nine months. Debbye wasn’t working and all this stress was taking a toll on her mental health.
Then Debbye experienced another blow—her son was diagnosed with sickle cell anemia. While in the hospital they learned that he had lead toxicity in his blood. The Department of Children and Family Services told her that the environment he was living in was unsafe, so she couldn’t go back to where they were staying or they would take her son from her. “I had no place to go. I was praying every day. I was making a lot of calls, but I had a lot of closed doors,” Debbye said.
A case manager at the hospital told her about the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission. “When she suggested I go to a shelter, I got offended,” Debbye said. “I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to a shelter.’” The idea of a shelter was frightening. She had made two intake appointments at the mission, but didn’t show up, she was running out of options fast. “I called the mission again. I had missed my last two appointments. I didn’t think they would be able to help me anymore, but they accepted me.”
Debbye’s first day was hard. “I felt ashamed. I felt like a failure, like I failed my son. My first night I went to sleep because I was so tired that day. I woke up the next day and felt like I made it. I could have been on the street. I could have been living in a car somewhere. It was a sense of relief,” she said. “Having my son here got me feeling like I could do another day. After talking with my case manager, I actually had a plan. Instead of everything being up in the air. Everything over time began to feel lighter.”
Being in a shelter wasn’t what she feared it would be. “We ate. Everything was clean. The environment was like a family. The support here is amazing,” Debbye said. “What was a little spark is now a flame. I feel a lot more confident now. People gravitate towards me. I feel like a different person. My faith is stronger. I pray every day now. Having that relationship with God has changed me so much. I feel like a different woman.”
Debbye has a renewed hope for the future. “I will eventually be independent. I have a plan here and God brought me here for a reason. God is preparing me for something. Things still get stressful for me to this day, but he’s preparing me for something bigger.”