In October, I launched the website for my latest photojournalism endeavor, Project Hands. Many of the stories come from guests of the Rescue Mission, a comprehensive homeless shelter in Roanoke. Check it out at StoriesWeHold.com. Below is just one of the many powerful, eye-opening accounts I've heard.
The day everything changed
He always worked, and I always stayed home with the kids. He would come home, and I'd be ready with the kids. We would go out and do stuff together every day. The park, whatever. On weekends, we'd go camping. Sometimes we'd go to the museum. Zoos, everywhere.
Then about a year ago, I had a stroke. Following the stroke, I lost my job. I'd been there for about two years.
The day he had the stroke, I thought I was losing him.
We turned to my family, because she doesn't have any.
But his family quit helping us, and we lost everything. We lost our home, we lost our car.
We placed our kids with my dad, so they wouldn't get taken from us.
Pregnant and living in a tent
Three or four times a week, we would have my mom pick us up to go see the kids — and get a shower. That was a big thing.
Being pregnant on the riverbank was really hard. Very uncomfortable. Moving around, getting in and out of the tent, being bored. Worrying because I was high-risk, worrying about something happening and not having transportation from the river to the hospital. I'm highly allergic to bees, so if I'd gotten stung, the ambulance wouldn't have made it to me in time. I probably would have died.
A couple of nights, it dropped down to about 30 degrees. That's when we had to call it quits. We couldn't do it.
We went to a hotel and got help from family and churches. They'd pay for the hotel.
The peace of Serenity
We stayed at the Ronald McDonald House, which kept us off the river. It was like a five-star hotel to us, after what we'd been through all summer.
Once the last day for the NICU came, we had to stay at the hospital to show them we could take care of her — since she's a premie. We made the decision right then and there that we couldn't go on the street. That's when we came here.
Jessica and Alvin named their daughter Serenity.
I used to have a very big problem with pain medication. I got clean and sober, and the Serenity Prayer is something that I say often. Having her and knowing that she's healthy ... she's my lifesaver.
She's added peace to our family. It's like my heart is at a different level — even though she's pulling my hair right now.
The hardest part
Knowing you have to be in a homeless shelter ... it takes your pride away. We couldn't do this with all of our kids. It would be impossible.
Realizing they can't provide for their children is even harder.
Every time we talk to our oldest daughter, she asks if we've found a place to live yet. They want to come home. It breaks my heart to tell her, "No, baby, but we're still trying." It's been two years now that we've had bad luck. I went from being stable my entire life to this.
It's hard when your kids ask you for something, and you can't get it for them. They don't understand why.
What savings we have is with the kids right now. If they want something, they know they have to wait until tax time.
I'd say the hardest part for us is having to put our kids with someone else, because we couldn't provide. We couldn't provide them with a home. We couldn't provide them with clothes. We couldn't provide them with shoes. We couldn't provide them with toys. We couldn't provide them with stability.
Their prevailing love
She means the world to me. If we were separated, I wouldn't waste my time looking for anybody else, because I've put so much into our relationship. These past couple of years, we've spent a lot of time together. We've definitely decided we have found our soul mate.
Their bond has survived Alvin's alcoholism, Jessica's addiction to painkillers and a period of time when Jessica was back together with the father of her oldest daughters.
I was really horrible when I drank. I put my hands on her a couple of times, and I really feel bad about it. I drank a fifth of liquor a day like it was nothing. That took me away from spending time with my kids. It got to a point where I'd walk in the door after work, and my oldest daughter would say, "Daddy, do you need me to go to the fridge and get you a beer?" I've been sober two years, though.
I'd lay there at night, when I was with my oldest kids' father, and think about why I did what I did. It broke his heart. It killed him. I think that if I hadn't come back, he would've killed himself.
The hope ahead
I'd like to see myself with my CNA. Have a job at a doctor's office or a hospital. That's my plan. I want to be able to go back to school and provide for my children.
We want our kids to have better lives that what we had. College. Success. Stability.