Editor’s Note: This story was produced as part of ivoh’s Restorative Narrative Fellowship. It is told in five parts and was originally published on WCPO.com on June 11, 2015.

 

 

LaMonica Sherman was born into poverty, but that’s not what defines her. LaMonica Sherman never shied from a fight in high school and partied hard, but that’s not what defines her. LaMonica Sherman is a single mom of two, but that’s not what defines her.

What defines her is faith. Faith in God. Faith in people.

And most of all, faith in herself.

Sherman knows that no one makes it into the Winton Terrace Community Center by accident. First, there’s the turn off of Este Avenue onto Kings Run, past the Winton Terrace sign and a blink of a business district, a short block of cell phone outlets and liquor stores.

Then, there’s the turn onto Winneste, past roadside memorials of lives lost piled with stuffed animals and wilted balloons. Identical two-story brick townhomes line streets that act as sidewalks for neighborhood tough-guys. Roads branch into cul-de-sacs where mothers don’t let their children leave the house alone.

At first glance, the Community Center where Sherman works blends with the rest of the unadorned red brick that defines Winton Terrace. This is Cincinnati’s oldest – some would say meanest – public housing project. A thick crosswalk and a thinly lettered sign lead the way inside, where on this day a dozen women and one man gather to talk about a book.

They sit across from each other at three long cafeteria-style tables, each holding a copy of “Tattoos on the Heart,” the 2011 nonfiction account of Father Greg Boyle’s transformative work with gang members in Los Angeles. Some pull out notebooks, some spread out blank pieces of loose paper. Others hold highlighters and pens.

Sherman sits at the table closest to the door to Winneste. She’s been running the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s Winton Terrace office out of the Community Center for eight years. The Reading Circle, like three other support groups for residents, was her idea.

She greets each newcomer like an old friend visiting on a special occasion. She asks about mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, grandkids and cousins, all by name. She remembers key details—a recent cancer diagnosis, a teen hanging with a dangerous new crowd, a family running low on food. She keeps a mental tally of where she’ll deliver flowers or drop off taco salad the following day.

LaMonica Sherman takes her job in Winton Terrace seriously | Elissa Yancey
LaMonica Sherman takes her job in Winton Terrace seriously.

Sherman is a flowing splash of a bright blue blouse in a room of dull white and yellow, her short black wig, one of many she owns, streaked with smooth copper waves. Every smile reveals a flash of the gold of her left front tooth. Every deep laugh reaches across the room, landing like a sermon on unsaved souls.

“We are all here to help each other through,” says Diane Jordan-Grizzard, a local author who Sherman has brought in to facilitate the group. “How’s everybody doing?”

Jordan-Grizzard reads a passage from the second chapter of “Tattoos,” in which the Jesuit priest grows frustrated when his day is interrupted by a desperate parishioner who winds up teaching Boyle an important lesson about patience.

“Have you ever felt like someone was an interruption in your life?” Jordan-Grizzard asks.

“I had mistaken LaMonica for an interruption,” says Lolita Taylor, 49. She met Sherman in the early 1990s, when both were single mothers living in subsidized apartments called Page Towers on the outskirts of downtown Cincinnati. “She turned out to be a blessing.”

A City of Woe and Hope

It’s a common sentiment among the women of Winton Terrace, one of Cincinnati’s four large-scale subsidized housing communities. The neighborhood includes 600 units, with approximately 2,500 residents, 65 percent led by single women. The majority of residents are black, half are children and the median annual income is $7,945 in a city where the median income is nearly five times that amount, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Community Survey.

Combine it with nearby Findlater Gardens and Silver Oaks, two other subsidized developments, and this is the population of a small city. A small city with a history of violence, neglect and crime.

The women gathered at the Reading Circle first ventured out of their homes for regular sessions at the Community Center because of Sherman, who started working in the neighborhood eight years ago, when St. Vincent’s set up an office there.

She started a women-only support group called Sister Circle after realizing young mothers and older female residents were often isolated in their homes, shielding themselves and their children from the dangers outside.

Sherman thought it might help if they could share their fears and their stories. After knocking on doors and handing out bus tokens to help neighborhood kids get to school, Sherman pulled out all the stops to get women to give Sister Circle a try. She mentioned it to every client who came to her office in search of St. Vincent services like clothing vouchers or help with paying utilities. She sweet-talked volunteers and reminded GED students.

There would be food, she told them, and so much more.

‘They Can Relate to Me’

Once the women join, it doesn’t take long for the stories to flow.

There is Taylor, who has given birth to 14 children, including one labor as she underwent brain surgery after that baby’s father beat her senseless.

There is Nikki Steele, a former crack-using mom of three with an associate’s degree and a penchant for fist fights.

There is LaTasha Marshall, who spent her teens in foster care before aging out and graduating to a life in public housing.

Sherman listens. No judgment. No shock. She watches as barriers disappear and connections form. In their stories, she recognizes pieces of her own.

“I believe because I came from where they are at, they can relate to me,” says Sherman, 45, whose first apartment was in public housing in the West End. “They look at me as a mentor, and because they see me moving forward in my life and attaining things, it gives them hope.”

From Follower to Leader

Under her leadership, Sister Circle quickly became a once-a-month refuge and an example of the power of community within a community where residents regularly described their homes as “prisons.”

Since joining, Marshall found the strength to report and testify against a drug dealer she saw shoot two bystanders near her Winton Terrace home. Now out of prison, the dealer still frequents the neighborhood, even though he has been officially evicted from it. Though she feared the worst, Marshall and her family weren’t targeted for retaliation. They remain unscathed from her truth-telling.

Other wounds reach deeper.

“My kids know what gunshots are, they know what guns are,” said Marshall, 34, a mother of two. She was 12 when she was given up for an adoption that never happened, leaving her at the mercy of the foster system.

Now she does what she can to shield her children. No violent video games are allowed in the house, and once, when a friend gave her son a toy gun for his birthday, she refused the gift – and lost the friendship.

Marshall credits Sister Circle, and Sherman in particular, for giving her the confidence to stand up for herself and her family. When the Kentucky native first moved to Winton Terrace, she thought keeping out of trouble meant keeping to herself.

Now, as vice president of the Winton Terrace Residents Council, she shows up and speaks out at events around the neighborhood and across the city. This summer, she’ll take a leadership development class at nearby Xavier University.

‘I’ve Never Been President of Anything’

Like Marshall, Nikki Steele had no intention of spending any time on the streets of Winton Terrace once she landed in a housing unit.

She’d earned an associate degree in Business Administration as a single mother of two when she was in her mid-20s.

But trouble with men and trouble with drugs led to trouble with the law. She and her youngest daughter were homeless after she spent nine months in Marysville’s women’s prison for a parole violation.

She finally moved to Winton Terrace, fresh out of rehab, with her 10-year-old daughter, LaQuita, in tow.

“When I first moved here, I could look out my window and watch drug transactions taking place, people buying heroin, crack, whatever,” Steele says. “It didn’t feel like a very safe place.”

But she needed bus tokens so LaQuita could get to school, so she wound up at St. Vincent’s office, face to face with Sherman. Sherman asked Steele to share her roller-coaster of a life story, and when she did, Sherman heard the voice of a leader.

She persuaded Steele to use her business skills as a volunteer at St. Vincent’s, to spend her days in the community center and office instead of returning home after walking LaQuita to the bus. She told Steele that God had work for her to do in the neighborhood, that her skills were meant to serve a bigger purpose.

Steele became a fixture at the Community Center and signed up for every support group she could. Before long, she joined the Winton Terrace Resident’s Council, not just as a member, but as an officer. In summer 2014, after declaring she wasn’t putting herself on the ballot, she was nominated and voted into the top leadership position.

“I’ve never been president of anything,” says Steele, 45.

Nikki Steele and LaQuita Brown with Father Greg Boyle | Elissa Yancey
Nikki Steele and LaQuita Brown with Father Greg Boyle

The other thing her life had been short on was friends, people she could trust, people who understood her and cared for her, people she could count on.

That’s what she found in Sister Circle.

She brings LaQuita to the Reading Circle regularly now, and brags about how easily her daughter grasps the themes that run through books like “Tattoos”—forgiveness, faith, determination, love—and connects them to Winton Terrace’s stark realities.

“The whole time, Miss LaMonica is pushing me,” Steele says. “She has been my mentor in everything I have done, every step I have taken.

“I would not be where I’m at had it not been for coming to St. Vincent de Paul and asking for some bus tokens.”