Sometimes a path forms where you tread most without you even realizing it. Sometimes a new path is simply presented to you. And sometimes, you are thrust onto a path by unanticipated events that in retrospect are a blessing. The last scenario happened to me.
Several years ago, I survived a brutal period of domestic violence with increasing levels of mental and physical abuse, including almost dying in one incident where choking and a knife were involved. The incomprehensible, surreal effect that this has on anyone, especially on anyone who has no prior knowledge of the cycle of domestic violence (as is common), is hard to put into words. The terror, the constant anxiety, the self-doubt and threats from the abuser about telling someone -- unless you've experienced it, which hopefully you have not and will not, it's challenging to acutely understand it.
Having felt this first-hand, I decided to try to help a population of hurting people who did acutely know this horrific feeling: moms with kids. Statistics vary, but on average, studies suggest that on the low end, just over a quarter (28 percent) of homeless moms are victims of domestic violence. In Southern California, where I lived, it's closer to 50 percent. And these are likely underreported figures. At some point, to save your own life and/or your children's lives, the only choices become: he's out, or you're out. And so moms and kids become homeless.
I had already been working with Union Rescue Mission for several years after being stunned upon learning of the number of homeless people in L.A. when I moved there from Ohio. Seeing the women and kids there on Skid Row broke my heart, even though the kids smiled and laughed and played like kids do, and the moms were so appreciative of the safety and shelter and basics of living.
Hoping to help more long-term, I asked to design and teach a series of classes at URM about finding jobs, which went extremely well. One of the women (whom we'll call Jane) who had been in the classes for a couple months twice a week approached me one day after class. The stories Jane shared then about her history literally brought tears to my eyes.
And then, Jane dramatically altered my life for the better.
"Thank you for showing me last week how to use Word and Excel," she said. "I just wanted to tell you I got a job in Vegas and am moving there next week."
Jane was smart and only needed confidence and a little information. But she gave me something monumental. To have contributed even a little to one woman being freed from the situation she was currently in made my heart sing.
From then on, I became increasing passionate about social good in many ways, including donating a car and my diamond wedding rings to Karz 4 Kids and Hope Gardens, respectively. (Hope Gardens is Union Rescue Mission's transitional housing for moms and kids away from Skid Row, which opened a while after Jane moved away; I was a member of their Capital Campaign for several years and am a big fan.) While donating financially is certainly not the only way to help organizations, it felt extremely cathartic to me personally. Spreading awareness and hope via social media is another way that feels great, and anyone can do it anytime. Twitter has been a huge source of ongoing inspiration for me and millions of others.
This piece of this tale has written a happy ending for itself. What caused immeasurable pain led to equally immeasurable growth, empathy and gratitude for learning and being able to help others.
When life hands you a giant bushel of lemons, it makes plenty of lemonade to share along your path.
Follow Amy Neumann on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CharityIdeas