Latoya Winters, 24, is a youth worker at Marillac House, a west-side social service agency. When she was high school age, staff at Marillac helped get her into a program in which she boarded in Evanston and attended Regina Dominican, a private school in Wilmette. —Steve Bogira
Marillac has been here forever. I was born and raised right up the street. My mother had nine children. Four of them are now deceased. My mother was addicted to drugs. She was in and out of prison. My grandmother adopted us. My grandmother raised about 30 of us, and the older kids used to come home from Marillac and brag about all the fun things they did—sports, dance clubs, cheerleading. We were like, “Can we go to Marillac?” “No, y’all are too young.” I started going there after school when I was six. We did art projects and jumped double Dutch and were in drama classes.
May 7, 1997. I was eight. There’s about 20 or 30 of us sleeping in one house, so it’s sleep where you can fit. I was in my grandmother’s room, which was where my two sisters and my brother were sleeping. I was under the bed looking for my shoes or something. When I saw the fire I jumped back, and I was just hollering. It’s starting to wake people up, but not the three people that I’m trying to wake up. It’s getting smoky really quick. I’m eight years old and I don’t really know what to do besides I should be trying to get out.
The story that I always heard was that [firefighters] found my two sisters hugged up together, but the smoke inhalation and everything—they just weren’t able to make it out. They were six and ten.
A lot of us [at Marillac] come from similar situations. I can name 95 percent of my friends, and the biggest thing we had in common was being raised by our grandmothers. Mothers on drugs, fathers on drugs, and they just left everything up to our grandmas. That’s why we were able to connect with each other and reach out and shelter each other—”Maybe you can help me and I can help you.”
I graduated from Calhoun [elementary school] in 2003, then I went to Regina Dominican. Had it not been for Marillac I would have never found out about that program. I was like, I don’t want to move away from my family, I got brothers and sisters and I don’t want to leave my grandmother. Then I realized, if I ever want to go off to college, if I ever want to come back and do something in my neighborhood, then this is something I need. And if I didn’t get in that program and go to Regina, I never would have thought college was possible—growing up around here I never once had thought about college.
I didn’t know I was pregnant when I went off to Northern [Illinois University]. My cycle was late. I went to the doctor, and sure enough. My immediate reaction was: I’ve waited my whole life to go off to college. I got all these people that have helped me to get here and I’m gonna have to tell them that I’m pregnant and I have to drop out of school and just get a job.
I thought about everything and I was like, people have babies and go to school and still make a way every day. OK, I can do this.
My son was born near the end of my freshman year. I needed to have an emergency C-section, and then they told me something was wrong with him and he had to stay in the hospital. They were seeing the signs with his muscle tone, his eyes were not functioning properly, and he would have seizures. They said he had polymicrogyria [a rare brain disorder]. He was fed through a tube, he could never suck a bottle. He was in Misericordia [a nonprofit facility that cares for the developmentally disabled] most of the time. I would visit him when I was home from college. I could hold him, I just had to be careful because of his tube. He died before his first birthday.
I got my bachelor’s in sociology with a minor in family and child studies. I’d like to pursue my master’s in social work, and do something with the Department of Children and Family Services. I think a social worker should work from her heart.
I wanna help people where I’ve come from because they think, oh, this is not possible, college is really not gonna happen. That’s why I tell them my story. I know some parts of it is sad, but then I say, guess what? I just graduated from college. The people at Marillac, they made that happen.
There aren’t a lot of places in the neighborhood where kids can get off the street and do homework. We work with the younger kids up till about eighth grade. We take them on trips. During the summer we have an all-day program. We’re basically a safe haven.
The kids at Marillac look up to me because they know I went through what they’re going through. They think, Latoya’s not lying or sugarcoating things. I’m not telling them something my friend went through. I’m saying something that I went through.