Nikki Steele sits at the far end of a cafeteria-style table, her 14-year-old daughter LaQuita perched on the sill of a barred window next to her. Steele leans back against the cement wall. Her shoulders slump. Her hooded sweatshirt hangs loose over her shoulders.
“I didn’t speak to no one,” Steele says. If body language sends a message, hers would be a billboard: Don’t talk to me. Don’t look at me. “That was my façade.”
In the room, the other dozen women, and one man, some in sweatpants and t-shirts, some in freshly pressed skirts and dresses, remain still in a moment of quiet. Then, LaQuita leans forward, throws her arm across her mom’s shoulders and tightens it into a hug.
“She don’t know how to smile,” the teen says. Her mom’s tension shatters, breaking into laughter that gives the others permission to join in.
“There are a lot of people who are invisible,” says Diane Jordan-Grizzard. The local author is leading the Winton Terrace Reading Circle discussion of a book by a Jesuit priest, “Tattoos on the Heart,” a 2011 nonfiction account of salvation among gang members in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles streets the book describes breed the same kind of desperation common in Winton Terrace, a 75-year-old subsidized housing development tucked off of Este Avenue and Kings Run in Winton Hills.
“Winton Terrace is a neighborhood that deals with a lot of oppression,” says LaMonica Sherman, who manages St. Vincent de Paul’s office in the housing development. “It’s a neighborhood where dreams have died or dreams have not been awakened.”
A World of Shame and Guilt
Jordan-Grizzard asks the Reading Circle members to think about why they choose to connect, or not connect, to their community.
It’s more than fear, they agree. For many, it’s a toxic mix of guilt and shame. Shame born of bad decisions. Shame born of betrayal. Shame born of filling out food pantry forms month after month and coming home to hungry children.
LaMonica Sherman can relate.
“I didn’t realize the guilt became a stronghold on my mind,” says Sherman. Heads nod in agreement.
Sherman has spent eight years building connections in Winton Terrace. She remembers when Steele never made eye contact, when the residents now seated around her battled their isolation from behind locked doors.
Mothering the Mothers
Evidence of her success sits in every seat at the Reading Circle, one of a network of support groups she has created to provide residents of the city’s oldest housing project with food for thought alongside a nourishing meal.
The need is ever-present. The median household income in Winton Terrace is just under $8,000 a year, according to U.S. Census data. Half of the residents are under 18, and all of these children live in homes led by single moms.
The more Sherman learned about children in poverty being raised by mothers in poverty, the more she kept returning to the plight of the neighborhood’s single mothers.
Who was giving them the support they needed to raise their children?
“Everybody needs an outlet, especially when you have kids,” Sherman says.
She felt called to serve the young mothers who reflected her past back at her as well as to support the older women she met who had no positive reasons to leave their homes. She started the neighborhood’s first support group, the Sister Circle, which has become a breeding ground for community leaders and lifelong friendships.
When Steele needed a business suit, Winton Terrace Sister Circle members delivered. When she needed extra diapers after three of her grandchildren moved in for an extended stay, they had her covered. She says that Sherman, the glue that holds the groups together, has not only changed lives in the neighborhood, she’s saved them.
“I’m a true believer that things can change,” says Sherman, whose daughter Gigi, 19, started at the University of Cincinnati in the fall of 2014 and became the first member of the family to make it into college.
Next Step: Her Own Ministry
Fueled by the power of the community she’s helped forge and with a fortifying prayer always at the ready, Sherman sees her future more clearly now than ever before. She’ll start her own ministry, she says, and call it The Turning Point.
She’ll minister to people who don’t frequent churches, and she’ll preach about the power of falling in love with God. She might even start this summer, with an old-fashioned revival in Winton Terrace.
Before the Reading Circle breaks for a closing prayer and a trip around tables filled with chicken, sandwiches and pasta salad, LaQuita has one more story to share.
It’s important to reach out to connect with others, the youngest Reading Circle member tells the group. A girl she’d been to summer camp with the year before had been a cutter, regularly injuring herself because, as she said, “Don’t nobody care, so I don’t care, either.”
That’s when LaQuita stepped in. “I told her, ‘I don’t understand what you’re going through, but I can feel your pain,'” she says. “I had to let her know somebody cared about her. I wanted to make a memory in her life.”
Sherman nods as she responds: