When LaMonica Sherman started her job as an advocate at Cincinnati’s St. Vincent de Paul Society in 2000, she made $9 an hour. It was a $1.50 an hour raise from her previous job at Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses, and she looked forward to the few extra dollars each month.
Landing the job was an answer to a prayer she’d prayed for years. Working in an office would move her and her two children off of government assistance once and for all, she imagined.
What she didn’t anticipate was the cliff effect — the increase in her income would mean a decrease in the amount of food stamps she would get. Even though she worked and earned more, she was less financially stable than when she was on assistance. And she was far from alone.
A single mother in Cincinnati who has a preschool and school-aged child needs at least a $45,000 annual income to achieve self-sufficiency, according to a 2012 report from the Women’s Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. That amount, equivalent to making about $22 an hour, covers housing, food, childcare, insurance and other living expenses.
Sherman’s starting income at the desk job of her dreams was $19,000. Even adjusting generously for time and inflation, the difference between necessity and reality is more canyon than chasm.
As she tried to back away from the financial cliff, Sherman had new childcare worries with a new full-time job further from her home, not to mention two school-aged kids who could get sick at a moment’s notice. A car would make juggling work and childcare easier, but she had no credit history to support a loan.
As she earned more, she struggled more.
Clawing Her Way Out of Poverty
“I am coming out of a poverty mindset,” says Sherman, 45, who grew up in Walnut Hills and now runs Cincinnati’s St. Vincent de Paul Society’s Winton Hills office out of the Winton Terrace Community Center.
“When you have been brought up in poverty, you have the mindset for today. When you are middle class, you have the mindset for tomorrow. When you are wealthy, you have the mindset for the future.”
It wasn’t until she started working at St. Vincent’s that Sherman understood the lasting impact those different mindsets can have on financial and life choices.
“I want every area in my life to have integrity,” she says. “Paying your bills on time, that is having integrity. But when you are in poverty, you don’t look at it like that. It’s like, ‘I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul right about now.'”
She had no clue how to start and manage a bank account, how to balance her bank statements or how to create a workable budget. Mistakes she made early on continue to plague her.
“I’m cleaning up my credit,” says Sherman, who now rents a house in Price Hill that’s big enough for her and her 76-year old father, Ralph Sherman, who has lived with her for three years. There’s also room for her son Gertod, 24, whose younger sister lives on campus at the University of Cincinnati, and for a friend in transition or an out-of-work relative.
It’s a bi-level house with small rooms filled with soft furniture, where overstuffed accent pillows crowd out the cushions on two living room couches. Atop a wooden cabinet with a flickering electric fireplace front, a Sanyo widescreen TV plays the Daystar gospel network whenever Sherman is home.
Sherman knows she should be able to buy a house with the $900 a month she pays in rent, but as she rebuilds her credit and feeds a savings account, it’s the best she can do.
‘I Was Ghetto’
She also knows that her poverty mindset impacts more than where and how she lives. It also colors the way she approaches her job at St. Vincent’s, which initially led to friction.
“I was ‘ghetto’ when I first got that position,” Sherman says. Now she can laugh about it, but she admits she didn’t understand the importance of being on time then.
When Sherman was new to the role, the agency’s laid-back atmosphere reflected its size and surroundings. She was one of four employees and her grassroots outreach efforts were essential to building the organization’s volunteer base in the West End.
“I struggled, not understanding the seriousness of the responsibility I had stepped into,” she says.
Liz Carter, who hired Sherman when she was St. Vincent’s executive director, saw her struggle. Sherman was not a Franklin-planner kind of employee. Instead, she completed tasks from one sticky note—a phone call to return, a deadline for a project or report—to the next.
It wasn’t a conventional work method, but for a while, it worked.
Whether it was seeing extra clients or providing more services, whatever goals Carter set for Sherman, she met and exceeded them, Carter says.
After a major building renovation, the nonprofit began to grow, in part thanks to Sherman’s ability to connect with residents in Over-the-Rhine and the West End.
‘LaMonica Never Quits’
When a supervisor position opened, Carter had to choose whether to hire one of the many college graduates who applied for the job or to offer it to the high-school educated Sherman.
“It was definitely a stretch for her,” said Carter, who decided to promote Sherman.
In Sherman, Carter saw the spirit of Frederic Ozanam, who founded St. Vincent de Paul Society in France in 1833. Ozanam was a scholar and a grassroots caregiver, who, along with a group of friends, turned their attention to Paris’ poorest citizens. His first act of charity was delivering firewood to a poor Parisian widow whose husband had died of cholera.
He rooted St. Vincent’s in the kind of personal touches that can extend the life and power of a good deed.
“When people come to you and they are broken, that sense of connection is what heals them,” Carter said. “And LaMonica had that.”
What she didn’t have instinctively, she would have to learn.
“There were times when it was really difficult for her to get the habits that she needed,” Carter says. “But LaMonica never ever ever quits.”
‘A Good Investment’
Carter assigned a coach to help Sherman learn how to stay organized and manage a small staff. She and other colleagues stepped in to offer pointed suggestions.
One colleague had Sherman make a list of every task she worked on during every hour of the day. She learned to listen carefully to each staff member and adjust her responses depending on their communication styles.
Sherman is the first to admit that she initially resisted. She fought changing her habits and grew frustrated with new demands.
But no matter the setback, she not only kept working, she worked harder.
She started checking emails more often. She made sure she arrived on time for meetings. She learned to see her clients as clients, not friends.
“I don’t have regrets because you can’t change the past, you can’t change your season of learning and growing,” she says.
Carter’s faith in Sherman stemmed not only from watching her work, but from seeing her “green” employee’s innate ability to sense when anyone—a fellow employee, a client or even her boss—needed a little extra encouragement or a personal prayer to get through a hard day.
“She has this extraordinary intuition about people,” she says.
She calls Sherman “a good investment in every way.”
“You could give a person 10 college degrees hanging from this wall and it doesn’t give them the heart for this work and the desire to do what needs to be done,” Carter says. “LaMonica has it.”
God’s Assignment: Winton Terrace
That’s why when Carter first drove through the streets of Winton Terrace in 2007 and saw a brick and concrete blur of isolation and need, she immediately thought of Sherman.
In Winton Terrace, Carter saw more young men walking in the middle of the streets than on the sidewalks. She saw garbage cans overflowing and streets lined with closed doors. The two-story brick townhomes stared blankly at the streets, reflecting no signs of life except for the occasional departure and arrival.
The city’s oldest subsidized housing complex opened as a whites-only community in 1940 and stayed that way until the late 1950s. By the mid-1990s, though, it was 95 percent African American and a bellweather for the city’s poverty crisis.
St. Vincent’s had been called on to take over services, including a GED program, in the subsidized development just eight miles from Downtown when its only resident agency was closing up shop.
“It was really clear to me if you just set up an office there, you are not going to be part of that community,” Carter says. “You needed somebody who could go in and talk to people, who could win their trust, and then you could start to have an impact. And I knew that LaMonica was the one. She was the one and there was just never any question about that.”
Sherman, who had spent time in the housing project during her hard-partying years, never questioned Carter’s assignment.
“I knew God was sending me on an assignment,” she says.
Her relatives, though, had their doubts. “That’s good, LaMonica, but you ain’t scared?” one asked.
“You’d better get a bulletproof vest.”