Editor’s note: Article originally published May 20, 2001.
Eighteen months ago, Teresa Williams and her three small children were homeless and hopeless.
As she drifted down Akron’s South Broadway with her young family, she worried about where they would lay their heads that chilly winter’s night. And she wept when she found a mere two ounces of milk remaining in a plastic bottle for her 1-year-old twins to share.
At age 23, she knew what it was like to live on the streets. At least a dozen times since the age of 13, she had been homeless. But on that gloomy January day with the frigid rain trickling down the blue and pink snowsuits worn by babies Davian and Davierre, something was different. This time, Williams was sick with heartache.
And for the sake of the twins, and her 3-year-old son, Krystopher, she pledged to change. Right then — right there.
And that’s exactly what Williams did.
On June 7, she will be recognized for earning her General Equivalency Diploma at a ceremony at Barberton High School. Four days later, this proud woman will begin classes in computer programming at the University of Akron.
“When you can’t provide for your kids, that’s probably the worst feeling that any woman or man can ever have,” said Williams, who is now 25. “I promised myself that day on the street that if God could just get us through one last time, I would change.”
The young mother and her children remained at the Haven of Rest’s Harvest Home about a month before moving into an apartment of their own. And although it wasn’t a place where she wanted to raise her children, it provided a roof over their heads.
“It was really, really bad and roach-infested,” she recalled. “But I . . . said, ‘OK, I know that I don’t even have a cover, a sheet, a towel, but something good has got to happen.’ “
She and her children spent the first two days without heat or water.
“We were cold, but because it was an apartment house where a lady lived downstairs, the heat rose. I saw the frost forming on the windows,” she remembered, tears streaming down her face. “And I prayed we could live until tomorrow.
“I couldn’t go to sleep, but I pulled my babies next to me and wrapped them with the greasy curtains that I took off the windows,” she said.
With the morning light came an offer from a friend, Rubin Kidd — who would later become William’s love interest — to pay for the utilities.
Just prior to moving into the dismal apartment, Williams and her children had been featured in a story in the Akron Beacon Journal depicting homelessness. After the story appeared, there was a great outpouring of assistance from the community.
“It all seems so crazy, but all of a sudden, blessings started rolling in and they didn’t stop,” Williams said.
A young mother with three children wrote a heartfelt letter to Williams and enclosed a $25 check. Others donated furniture, dishes, clothes, pillows and blankets.
“Out of the grace of God, they called wanting to help,” Williams said. “One day I had nothing, and the next, I had everything, and then some.”
Still, she knew she had to remain focused. School was her top priority. But, by her own admission, she periodically relapsed, often missing classes at Barberton’s Decker Family Development Center. After all, getting to school was tough — especially trudging through the snow with three small children in tow.
“I got up at 5:30 in the morning, covered the two-seated stroller with big quilts that I got at the shelter, and went to the bus stop,” she remembered. “The first day, I was kind of embarrassed. But I thought, one day, I’m going to . . . drive to school.’ “
Regardless of where Williams’ quest for education took her, it seemed people were there to inspire her to push forward.
Even during the long bus rides home to Akron from Barberton, Metro Regional Transit Authority driver Sheryl Symons of Cuyahoga Falls filled Williams’ head with words of encouragement — and her children’s bellies with milk and cookies.
“She [Symons] knew nothing about me, but talked to me about life,” Williams recalled. “Every day, she had something a little special to say to me to keep me going.”
And the folks at Decker, including teacher Judy Moffitt, are masters at dishing out motivation.
The respected center, visited in 1992 by then-first lady Barbara Bush, is a collaboration involving 26 county agencies, providing social, medical, educational and mental-health services to low-income and special-needs preschoolers and their parents.
Funded by federal, state and foundation grants, the center is a one-stop spot for families in need of services that include counseling, home visits, day care, health care, adult basic education and career preparation classes. Head Start and classes for infants and toddlers are also offered - simplifying Williams’ day care concerns.
Moffitt said Williams was an assertive student who was a leader among her peers.
“She’s tenacious and enthusiastic about learning,” Moffitt said. “She would get great pleasure from little spurts of new information.”
Perhaps before she was really ready, Williams insisted on taking the GED test in August. In her rush, she narrowly failed one portion of the exam. While disappointed, she was not broken, and phoned Decker requesting study materials that she could review at home to better prepare for her second attempt, on Feb. 28.
“Before I took the test, I went into the bathroom and got on my knees in one of the stalls,” Williams said. “I prayed: Dear Lord, this is the chance for me to get a better life for me and the kids. This is the chance for me to get out of the depths of hell where I’ve been living all of my life.’ “
The answer to her prayer arrived a few weeks later in a letter.
“I screamed at the top of my lungs,” she said when she spotted the diploma. “It was the biggest relief I ever felt in my life. I had such low self-esteem that I never thought it would happen for me.”
Hurriedly, she enrolled in the University of Akron’s Educational Advancement Opportunities program, a pre-college workshop that will better prepare Williams to succeed in college when classes begin June 11.
Success in spite of it all
Although Williams, who has two other children living with a relative, has moved to a different apartment, complete with televisions and furniture, she still has a long road to success.
The inside of her apartment on the southwest side of Akron is spotless, but it is in a neighborhood rampant with crime. Currently, Williams, collects Social Security because of bipolar disorder (an updated term for manic depression) and welfare for her children, who are now 2 and 4 years old.
“If you were to tell me that this is where I would have to live for the rest of my life, I would want to kill myself,” said Williams, who bristles when anyone suggests she should be satisfied with her current lifestyle. “People say to me, ‘You are living comfortable, why do you want to get off welfare?’ I’ve heard it all.
“But there’s no way in the world that I’m going to sit here and let my life, and my children’s lives, go to waste. If you aren’t trying for anything, and you want for nothing, that’s no life.”
It’s tough talk — and only time will tell if Williams can pull her life together. Meanwhile, she continues looking to the future. She said that having dreams motivates her to continue pushing onward.
For example, she routinely drives to communities such as Copley, Fairlawn and Bath Township to look at the beautiful homes. They are places where she someday hopes to live.
“Go out and look ahead of yourself,” Williams said. “You have to be self-convincing.”
News of Williams’ sight-seeing ritual came as no surprise to Tom Baker, a case manager at Decker.
“Last year, Teresa was scrounging to find milk [for her babies] and a place to live,” Baker said. “And a year later, she has futuristic goals of five years away that are probably realistic. That’s amazing.”
That it is.