Virginia Reed, "I am a conqueror."
"When I thought of myself as a survivor,
it also meant
I was a victim …
of drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, homelessness, cancer.
But I am no longer a victim,
and I am no longer ashamed.
I am not a survivor, I am a conqueror.”
Virginia Reed, affectionately known as ‘Ginger’ by her fellow SRO Housing Corporation co-workers, is Program Manager for SRO Housing Corporation’s Permanent Supportive Housing Programs. Her hard-won wisdom and personal insight serve the community where she lives and works.
It has not been easy.
Virginia has conquered decades of debilitating panic disorder, bouts of severe depression, two abusive and life-threatening marriages, addiction to alcohol and drugs and the shame and loneliness of living on the streets. She worked to conquer additional challenges to receive a series of degrees with highest academic honors. She graduated with her Associate of Arts Degree, Summa Cum Laude from Los Angeles Community College (LACC) in Human Services, Drug and Alcohol Counseling and was the Valedictorian of her class. She received numerous awards for presentations on regional and national Debate Teams and in Impromptu Speaking and Policy Debate competitions, and was awarded California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) Alumni Certificate of Honor. In 2004, she graduated from CSULA with a 4.0 grade point average, Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work (BSW). She then went on to earn her Master’s Degree in Social Work, also Summa Cum Laude. She did all of this as a resident of SRO Housing on Skid Row.
Virginia could have walked away with her education, her awards and an impressive catalogue of accolades. But she had a different plan. “When you are a victim of domestic violence, you have to plan your escape. You have to prepare for it and diligently follow it.” Instead of escaping Skid Row, Ginger put her life experience to work and decided to stay. “I put down roots here,” Says Virginia,"My goal was always to come back here with the specialized skills the people we serve need and deserve.”
Virginia was raised by her father in a cooperative farming community in Colorado that fostered a sense of belonging. She left her small town and went to live with her mother in the city as a teenager and at 16 had her first child. At 17 she suffered what her doctor called “nerve problems.” The symptoms persisted for more than two decades and disrupted every aspect Virginia’s life. She experienced extreme physical distress; her head would pound, her heart would race. She feared she was losing control and was afraid she was losing her mind, “I started drinking to control my anxiety. I took the edge off by drinking.”
"I was ashamed to call my family and ask for help, so I stayed on the streets.”
After divorcing her abusive first husband, Virginia followed a long-distance love to California where she was finally diagnosed with a panic disorder. But the drugs she was given to control her symptoms sent her into a depression and made her unable to work. Virginia married her long-distance love, who had been supportive during her quest to get help, only to find that he was a “Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde.” “I was already drinking alcohol and taking excessive amounts of medication. When I started getting beaten I fled to the streets because I had no place else to go. I was afraid that if I went back to Colorado he would find my family and me and hurt us.”
While on the streets of Hollywood and in Downtown Los Angeles, Virginia became addicted to illegal drugs, was violently attacked and experienced intense shame and isolation. Fear of her abusive spouse kept her on Skid Row, “I went where he would never find me. I went to Skid Row because I knew he would never look here. I did it all in fear. I was living in a war zone.”
"A Homeless Woman is victimized more often, and in more ways, than a man. Women tend to get arrested more often than men.”
I got arrested a lot. And I got comfortable with that. When you go to jail, you have a bed, you have a meal. They even give you a job.” After a final arrest, Ginger was assigned to the Salvation Army’s Safe Harbor 90-day drug treatment program,
located in Central City East. “It was crazy and hard to stay sober on Skid Row. I could see it and smell it.” After two months in the program she began to understand that she had a choice, “I realized that I could choose to be a victim or a survivor, and I wasn’t going to be a victim anymore. A victim believes that they don’t deserve anything, that they’re not worthy at all. They’re thankful for a breath of air. I decided that people had reached into the depths of hell and pulled me out and that I was going to overcome.
I knew that no one was going to do it for me. I would have to do it myself.”
After graduating from Safe Harbor’s treatment program, Virginia moved into SRO Housing’s Angelus Inn, a permanent sober-living site. The Angelus Inn offered a support system and a safe environment where she could began putting her life back together. She volunteered, worked part-time, and began to attend school. She also learned how to manage her panic disorder through cognitive behavioral therapy. “I even had the opportunity to thank the police officer who arrested me and saved my life. “
Virginia’s academic journey began with a certificate in drug and alcohol counseling from Los Angeles Community College. She soon realized she needed additional skills and knowledge to be able to offer the level of help SRO residents needed.
"How do I define who and what I want to be? I knew I could be anything I wanted to be, but I had to ask myself, who is that person?"
Driven by her desire to give back to those who had helped her and her belief in the ‘person in environment’ philosophy of Social Work, she enrolled at CSULA’s school of Social Work. She graduated at the top of her class and went on to earn her Master’s in Social Work degree with a focus on Mental Health.
Her work at SRO Housing Corporation is clearly the driving passion in Virginia’s life but beyond her commitment to the organization and the community, Virginia enjoys jetting across the country to visit her family; a brother and sister in Denver, her mother in Arizona, and her son, daughter and grandchildren in Florida.
In 2011, life seemed full of possibility. Virginia decided to pursue a PhD to be able to teach at the University level. She was already teaching as a Field Instructor for the MSW/BSW Internship program and was serving as a supervisor for the Public Ally program. She had begun studying for the GRE and was considering whether to pursue an emphasis on Policy or Mental Illness in a doctoral program when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I was diagnosed on Valentine’s Day with inflammatory breast cancer. The cancer was Human Epidermal growth factor Receptor 2-positive (HER2+) which means estrogen production causes it to grow very rapidly. I was at stage 2B and the cancer was metastasizing. It was very scary.” Her fear was not just for herself, “ I was in a panic. I had an urgent need to accomplish. There were still so many things I wanted to do for SRO Housing Corporation.”
Virginia decided to approach cancer in the same way she approached her work, with a plan. “It was very important to me to work. I called it Planned Illness. I worked with my doctor to develop a treatment pattern to receive chemotherapy treatments on Thursday afternoon so I could work Friday before I got sick. By Monday I would be able to get back to work” She worked throughout the grueling treatment schedule including chemotherapy and Herceptin infusions. Ultimately, the cancer proved too stubborn for chemotherapy alone and Virginia underwent a Mastectomy followed by a second surgery for removal of lymph nodes followed by 8 weeks of targeted radiation and an additional series of chemotherapy combined with Herceptin infusions. “It’s a lot, but you just get up every day and go on.”Despite conquering cancer and all she has achieved, Virginia struggles with taking full credit for her accomplishments.
“I don’t do anything alone. Everything I do here at SRO Housing is made possible by others on the staff. I believe everyone has greatness in them."
“Everyone is capable.” says Virginia as she tackles daily challenges to meet the needs of the residents of SRO Housing permanent housing programs. With a busy schedule already, she has no plans to slow down. “When I was diagnosed with cancer, it delayed my plans to apply for a PhD program.” She is seeking a program that will allow her to work full time while attending a weekend accelerated program for working professionals. “I plan to pick up and start moving forward again” With her partner of 11 years, Virginia is beginning to envision a life beyond Skid Row. “We are saving for a house and looking forward to living together.”
Eunice Boynton, "There is always a way out."
In 2005, Eunice Boynton’s life was turned upside down. She was employed as a loan officer with a mortgage company when her husband of 22 years was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. She took a leave of absence to care for him throughout his illness. When he lost his battle, Eunice was devastated. She was also in financial limbo. Her husband’s assets were frozen after his death, leaving her with no day-to-day income and an inability to pay off the bills that had mounted during his illness.
Without a support system or financial stability, Eunice spiraled into a struggle with depression, alcohol and drugs. She didn’t want to think about what was going wrong in her life. At a loss for solutions, she ultimately lost everything and became homeless.
Eunice chose to move to LA’s Skid Row. She had heard of the benefits available. The tough streets, ready availability of drugs, and overall despair were a dangerous mix for someone already on the brink. She spent three years bouncing from hotel to hotel, surviving on $221 a month and food stamps. “It was hard, money was hard to come by,” and drug abuse took a toll. Eunice wanted her future to take a different course.
She turned to Chrysalis in May of 2009 simply to have a mailing address. To receive services, she was told she had to participate in the Chrysalis Employment Program. She enrolled in the program the very next day and began to take her life back.
“Things have come full circle. I’m on a good path.”
After completing the job-readiness program, Eunice landed transitional employment through Chrysalis Enterprises, working as a Front Desk Clerk at SRO Housing Corporation in downtown Los Angeles. The job gave her a renewed sense of security and a new outlook on life. Impressed by Eunice’s work performance, SRO Housing offered her a permanent position as an Assistant Property Manager and after one year, she was promoted to Property Manager. She now serves the Courtland Apartments,
“I manage 166 tenants. Each one has a different personality. We are close now, they trust me.”
“There is always a way out. You can’t do this by yourself, though,” says Eunice. She was honored by Chrysalis as a Buttefly, and was profiled in local CBS TV news coverage. Eunice credits Chrysalis for helping her turn her life around, “I now have a wonderful job, a beautiful apartment and I’m working with people that love me and I love them back…I have life.” She also has the luxury of dreaming for the future,
“If I had my own home, I’d want a garage and a front porch. I’d like to sit on my front porch and have the grandkids running up.”
Deborah Martin, "Creating something beautiful out of scraps."
Deborah Martin is a quliter. Some of her work has been displayed in galleries and public buildings in and around Los Angeles and Southern California. Like many of the residents who live in SRO Housing Corporation’s residential buildings in Skid Row, Martin’s journey back from homelessness was stitched together with tenacity, commitment and hope.
A California native and mother of two sons, Deborah was devastated by her divorce. "My kids, husband, the house with the picket fence, that Ozzie and Harriet life, was my whole world, I made it my whole world, and when that all came to a crashing halt I was shattered." Deborah's 1994 divorce propelled her into a life of drugs and prostitution. "When I ended up on the streets, drugs were my pain reliever… I was just trying to kill the pain. My whole world had just shattered and the drugs kept me numb for a long time."
For six years Deborah lived on the streets or in motels. She had worked in the MacAurthur Park area before the divorce, and when she found herself homeless she went there. Deborah's parents, siblings, even her ex-husband, would search MacAurthur Park for her. "I'd see them and exit the other side. I worried the death out of them. They loved me, but I didn't feel that I could go home. I didn't feel I had a home. They were right there, 8 miles away in Highland Park, but I could only be with me, so I separated myself."
During her years on the streets, Deborah was frequently arrested. "Once you've been to jail, you keep going back. You have to break the cycle…Drugs and prostitution kept leading me to jail, eventually the State Pen. I did jail time by myself, with nothing and no one. It was hard, and prison was harder still."
After her release from prison in September 2000, Deborah lived at the Weingart Center and found work through Chrysalis. For 19 months, Deborah was part of the Central City East Association's Street Works Team and swept the curbs of Skid Row. Then, through Chrysalis, Deborah began working at SRO Housing's Leonide Hotel as a Janitor. The manager of the Leonide Hotel wrote Deborah a letter of recommendation. On September 11 2002, SRO Housing hired her as a full-time Assistant Manager at The Courtland. Today, Deborah is a Property Manager, managing the Yankee (80 Efficiency units), The New Terminal (40 efficiency units), the Marshal House (SRO Transitional Sober Living -71 units), and supervises a staff of 5.
In 2003, Deborah received Chrysalis' "Butterfly of the Year" Award. "That was really an honor. Chrysalis gave me my start. For someone like me, someone starting all over, cleaning up records and wreckage they were a lifesaver. I've had a long, steady relationship with Chrysalis. Today I send my residents that are looking for work to Chrysalis."
"SRO means a lot to me. I came to SRO looking for a place I could grow, and I've found that, in my job and as a person. I'm not the same person I was Nine years ago when I came to work for SRO. Two years from now I won't be the same person that I am today. The learning never stops. You learn how to deal with different people and situations in different ways. What works today may not work tomorrow, so you continue to learn new ways. "
"I take my job seriously, I'm not here just for the paycheck. My job really isn't about the paycheck; it's about giving back to the community that gave to me when I needed them. And I do what I can do. I know I'm only one hit away from being on the curb one more time. But today I'm just not willing to give up what I've worked so hard to achieve."
"I'm not proud of what I did back then, but I don't think I'd be the person I am today if I hadn't gone through what I did. I'm far from perfect, and I still have a lot of work to do on me, but I've come a long way in 11 years and my journey continues."
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