“Even though you’re in school, you can’t tell anyone what you’re going through,” recalls Yolanda about her childhood of disfunction and living off-and-on-again in a car. “When I meet with children at our homeless shelters, they don’t have to say a word. I know exactly how they feel.” Yolanda now works as the family case manager for the two homeless shelters of Wichita Falls Faith Mission.
Yolanda’s childhood and teenage years were spent moving from town to town and living in a car when her family ran out of money. She describes how she had to be tough as a child and teenager. She always felt the weight of the world on her shoulders and continually had her guard up so others wouldn’t see her soft side. Crying was not an option. “You had to be strong as a child because you never knew where you would stay, what you would be sleeping on, or what school you would be attending,” said Yolanda. She also shared how she felt like you couldn’t let anyone know what was going on in your family. “You couldn’t tell on your family.” Yolanda was of a child when the campaign ‘Just Say No to Drugs’ became popular and was taught in schools. Yolanda felt shame knowing drugs surrounded her and her siblings every day, yet they were powerless to do anything about it. “How do you tell them that’s what is going on where you live? Why would I tell anyone? That’s my family.”
When asked about how children who are in situations like hers feel or think about school she said, “You’re not going to school to learn. Your mind is on something else. Mine was on my mom, my little sister, and little brother. When you leave school you never know what you’re going to come home to.”
“I would be mean because I didn’t understand, and I didn’t think it was fair,” Yolanda painfully expressed. She would go places and see the kids open things up or have things and it made her sad and angry at the same time. “I was angry at my parents. I felt helpless because I couldn’t say anything to them because I was a kid. I saw my dad blow our money and I couldn’t do anything about it.” Yolanda’s mom did the best she could, but the chasm of money and stability between Yolanda, her siblings and other children was quite apparent. She relates well to the children at Faith Refuge and Faith Mission because she remembers her pain of being made fun of for her clothes, the pain of fear, the pain of not being able to show or tell how she really felt, and the pain of feeling powerless. “That’s why I give to the children like crazy when they come to Faith Refuge or Faith Mission” stated Yolanda. “I know what it’s like to go to school and not have what you need.”
“I remember sleeping with a knife under my pillow because my father was crazy. My mom was afraid because my dad’s brother killed his wife. There was a lot of fear in my life.” On the outside Yolanda was tough, mean and angry. She became mean and evil “to get ahead of the situation.” Carrying a gun and joining a gang became one of Yolanda’s coping mechanisms for a short time.
You meet Yolanda now, and you wonder how this kind and joyful women could have been mean and part of a gang. When asked how she broke the cycle of violence and homelessness, she stated, “Jesus is the reason my life is changed.”
When asked how everyday people might minister to children living in homeless shelters or ones you think might have rough family situations, Yolanda gave different pieces of advice. “When you’re living in a dark world you hold on a lot longer to something positive. A lot longer than you would think. Even something as simple as telling a child, ‘You look really nice today’ makes a big difference.” Here are some other steps to take:
- Really listen to a child.
- Build trust with a child.
- Show the child love.
- A nice gesture or a smile goes a long way.
- Stop what you are doing in your busy day and take a few minutes to focus on a child and let them know you care.
- Be kind, gentle, and show grace.
- Don’t tell them they are bad. They might not know any better.
- Never give up on a child.
Sometimes you might think a child or a teenager will never open up to you. Yolanda said if there had been someone who never gave up on her sharing what was happening in her life, there were moments when she would have opened up and told that person what was happening in her life.
Her mom left her to fend for herself at the age of 14. She had no idea where her father was at the time. An aunt and uncle took her in and she recounts how she lay in bed sobbing one night and cried out, “Jesus, if you’re really real, help me.”
A few days later, her father, who had been “crazy” for most of her life and brought her so much pain showed up to take her. He had heard she had been left with family, so he came to take care of his daughter the best way he knew how. However, Yolanda recalls, “This time he was different. I couldn’t understand why he was so happy,” said Yolanda. Her dad told her about going to some kind of revival and “finding Jesus.” He told Yolanda how she too could become a Christian. Yolanda vividly remembers laying in a hotel room bed and praying to Jesus to make Him her Lord and Savior. “I was free. It was crazy. I’ll never forget it. I could finally sleep.”
The next day she picked the Bible up to read it, and her dad told her she needed to know how to pray, so he showed her how to do that. They left the hotel and started driving. Yolanda started in the book of John. As she rode in the car that summer, she read the entire New Testament. At the age of 14, she not only read the Bible, she also started living it.
Sharing part of her story wasn’t easy for Yolanda. In fact, she cried through most of the story. The pain is still sharp when those memories resurface. “I’ve blocked so many things out. It’s called survival,” Yolanda stated. “I’m still a work in progress.”
Mental illness was still very much a taboo when Yolanda was growing up. After she became an adult, her father was diagnosed with a mental illness and that is when things started making more sense to Yolanda about her father’s behavior. “The crazy thing is, he was the one who really told me about Jesus.”