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“Then, when he became abusive to our oldest son, I knew that I was not going to subject my children to what I had experienced as a teenager from my stepfather. I chose to leave.”

Joliet, Ill. – January, 2021

My name is Renee. I was born and raised in Chicago.

My dream, while in the ROTC, was to become enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and I was able to do so after high school. I wanted to serve my country and also see the world. I also wanted to escape my abusive stepfather. The Air Force filled these goals and, for the first time in my life, I was able to break my stepfather’s mental hold and make my own rules.

By the time I finished basic training, the Air Force had given me the confidence I needed that allowed me to liberate myself from my stepfather’s physical, mental and emotional abuse. I felt that my life was now one of duty and honor, far removed from the pain and suffering of my home.

It was amazing. I spent six years in the Air Force. My first job was as a Presidential Honor Guard– I worked at the White House and Pentagon. Later, I was offered a two-year tour in Guam. I’d never actually been on an airplane up until that trip. Soon, I was assigned to Turkey and then, much later, Germany. I met a flying dignitary who later became the father to my children. We married in 1996, just as he was beginning a new assignment.

After becoming pregnant, I chose to end my career and start down a new path as a military wife and stay-at-home mom. With this transition, we relocated to a permanent home in Landover, Maryland. At first it seemed like a storybook ending but then it became the beginning of a new set of problems.

After we married, my husband was always gone. We rarely saw each other and, as time went on, lived separate lives. That also meant he was never active in the lives of our children. While he wasn’t physically abusive, his lack of involvement was emotional abuse. What man with five boys has nothing to do with them? Then, as years passed, his apathy seemed to become replaced by malice towards me and our boys.

As things began going downhill, I found out he had a three-year-old son outside of our marriage. Then, when he became abusive to our oldest son, I knew that I was not going to subject my children to what I had experienced as a teenager from my stepfather. I chose to leave. I packed up and went on the run with the boys. We came home to Chicago to end that toxic marriage for myself and my sons.

Starting over again as a single mother, I hit the ground running with a plan to stabilize my family’s situation once and for all. I found a program where the military sends you back to school with a stipend and went on to become a Certified Nursing Assistant. From there, I did EMT work as a paramedic and was eventually able to save up enough to move my babies out of the worst suburb in Chicago. I did all that for three years until I got sick with ovarian cancer.

When discovered, the tumors were so big that the doctors weren’t even sure how I was still alive. In an instant, my life’s priorities changed. I started the process of going to St. James Olympia Cancer Center. I’d go back and forth for treatment and was sickly because of the medication. I couldn’t get out of bed or eat. By that February, I lost my job. By March, the landlord had the house in foreclosure. Thank goodness I had Volunteers of America Illinois there to help me.

When I was in jeopardy of losing my house, VOA Illinois assured us there was no need for us to be homeless. They told me that they have a place called Hope Manor Joliet. It’s a supportive housing development for veterans. They greeted me with open arms.

When my family first saw the campus and our apartment, they could not believe it—it was gorgeous. We moved in that June and they had welcome buckets put out for us with new clothes, new sheets… it was like paradise. My youngest son can come and go as he pleases—to the playground, to the school, to the store—in a neighborhood that’s clean and safe.

With the help of Programs and Services Manager Robert Coffee, I have also been able to find new purpose helping behind-the-scenes at Hope Manor Joliet. I call Robert ‘First Sergeant’, and I help him out as long as I’m here.

Hope Manor gives me purpose. I volunteer here to show my gratitude—whenever the staff needs anything from me and my family, we’re here no matter what. This is my community and whatever I need, whatever I go through, I know I’ll always have their support.

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