IMPACT

Fraud, Cancer, House Collapse: Adversity Inspires Philly Mom To Pay It Forward

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This story is part of HuffPost Impact's 12 Days, 12 Cities, 12 Families series, highlighting Americans who have persevered to overcome incredible challenges and the nonprofits that helped change their lives. Check back tomorrow for the continuation of this series.

Lasheild Myers is able to laugh a little now when she describes the first event in 1997 that changed her life.

"I came home one night from a 16-hour double shift working in a nursing home and the front of my house was on the ground," Myers described. "I was walking down the street and I got to where my house should be and only the door was standing, with the rest of it open like a dollhouse."

At the time, there was no way Myers could have laughed. An underground stream that ran below several houses on her street had collapsed, causing structural damage around the Philadelphia neighborhood. Housing authorities explained this to her the following day, as well as the fact that she wouldn't be able to re-enter the house to retrieve any of her or her children's belongings because her home was too structurally unsound. But that shouldn't be a surprise, they told her, because the house she had been living in had been condemned for some time.

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Myers was shocked. She had thought the house belonged to some family members of hers, and that her monthly rent was paying off their mortgage so that they could own an investment property she could continue to rent more cheaply in a few years. Instead, she realized, her relatives had fixed up a condemned house and she was paying them to squat in it.

She needed a minute to let this news sink in, but there in the housing office, her cell phone rang. It was her doctor calling with results from some routine tests. "She said I needed emergency surgery on my breast. I had cancerous cells." When the housing agent asked for an address to reach her at, she gave the hospital's. Her best friend Pat drove her in for her first treatment of a cancer battle that would last several years.

While being treated for breast cancer, Myers found out she also had ovarian cancer. She and her children moved into Pat's two-bedroom apartment while she fought to get her health under control. "I ended up being there for almost two years. Of course I lost my job, so I had no income. I managed to get to public assistance, and got $589 dollars a month in public welfare."

Lasheild Myers

Lasheild Myers and her granddaughter

A New Home, A New Start

Myers was on her way back from the welfare office one day when she saw a new apartment development being built down the street. She found out that she could be eligible for housing in the new neighborhood through Project H.O.M.E.'s Rowan Homes and filled out an application.

Project H.O.M.E. provides permanent affordable housing to individuals and families who require regular supportive services. Residents pay 30 percent of their income for rent and are offered comprehensive services including case management, education, job placement services and health care. It was one of the few places that Myers could apply to live in that would consider her despite her lack of income and renting history.

"A couple of months later, they had to come do a home visit. It was all of us, three boys, a girl and me, sharing a room. I just remember she called me on my birthday and asked if I would come visit the apartments."

A woman from Project H.O.M.E. came and picked Myers up. She was still too weak to walk from apartment to apartment, so the woman drove her to each one for her inspection. "She showed me the third apartment and I said, 'this is the one'. In my heart, it was telling me 'this is it'. She told me she'd be in touch with me and two hours later she told me to get my keys!

"I just couldn't move; I broke down crying," Myers described. "It was like every door had been closing. Everybody else told me my income was too low, I didn't have a reference, I was so stuck. For people who didn't know me to take a chance on me was unbelievable."

While she gained back her health in an apartment of her own, Myers began to assess what she had been through during the last couple of years. "It gave me a huge learning lesson. Of how to get involved with properties and how to appreciate life. I learned that you can't go by what you see with people." But she still had obstacles to overcome. "My children were at home, they did not miss school, they were clothed, but I had no income."

Myers got involved in the Rowan Homes committees but she soon told her case manager that she wanted to start working full-time again. "I've worked since I was 15 years old. I'm not used to just sitting around. I said, you know, I'm doing what I can volunteering, but I want to get off public assistance, I want to get to a point where I can have a job and be me again."

Her case manager found her a position at Project H.O.M.E. "Now I'm coming up on my ninth year. I just can't state enough about how fortunate I've been -- during the time I was so sick, being on my back and being like, why me, I didn't have to stay on the street, not one night."

Through Project H.O.M.E., Myers was able to take adult education classes and enroll in a first-time homebuyers program. In one more blow, she found out through the program that her identity had been stolen and that she owed $30,000 in false credit charges. Project H.O.M.E. helped her improve her credit score and negotiate down the charges. Myers now owes $16,000 dollars from the unauthorized charges and a student loan for degrees she's pursuing in business administration and criminal justice.

A Place Of Her Own, A Way To Help Others

Since then, though, luck has stayed on Myers' side. Through her friend and mechanic, she was able to move into a five-bedroom rent-to-own house and now lives there with her 22-year-old daughter, her granddaughter and her 24-year-old son.

"It needs some stuff -- the electricity needs to be rewired, and plumbing issues," she said, but she doesn't mind. "In the summer, I sit outside on the porch with my grandchildren and daughter and just know that it's mine. With all the things that I've been through, I have this as the outcome."

Myers is working hard to pay her good luck forward. In addition to trying to fix up her house, she's watching out for her three sons, daughter, and soon to be 14 grandchildren. She's going to school part-time to start her own security company and continues to work at Project H.O.M.E. But closest to her heart is her own nonprofit, With-in Strong Hands (W.I.S.H.) Right now, Myers is the nonprofit, working as a catchall advocate and problem-solver for people moving out of shelters into homes, senior citizens and anyone else that needs someone to speak up and look out for them.

"I try to solve problems for them, clean their houses for them free of charge, help with their paperwork," Myers said. Her nonprofit lets her look after others the way she's been looked after over the years.

At this point in her life, she explains, she's unfazed by the obstacles that are thrown her way and takes them only as a learning opportunity. With her house and her family, "I'm slow-strolling it," she said, and feels her biggest and only obligation is that "I have to give back."

The way Myers sees it, helping others is the clearest conclusion she's ever come to. "I can't afford not to, because someone reached out and helped me when nobody else would."

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