“Is this a real house, mommy? Does someone live here?”
Tonya was sleeping on the floor of her aunt’s house with her 3 and 1-year old daughters when she was introduced to a Hope House representative.
“It wasn’t an ideal situation for me, with two small children.”
While working as a peer advocate at the Shelby County Health Department, she told her story about living with HIV. A supervisor and friend introduced her to Hope House, a United Way partner agency nonprofit. One day, with her daughters by her side, she stopped by the small, sky blue cottage on Idlewild Avenue in Memphis.
Hope House’s mission is “to improve the quality of life for HIV-affected individuals and their families by providing high-quality early childhood education and social services.”
It did not register with Tonya at the time, but she would soon find the family and support she needed to live her dreams within the corners of Hope House.
Tonya was afraid as soon as a member of the team opened the door. Not knowing whether she would be immediately judged for her living situation and health status, she planned to maintain a cordial demeanor, observing the attitudes and characteristics of the Hope House staff.
“We are intentional about having a home-space because we want people to feel at home here,” said Lenox Warren, Director of Development.
For the first time, Tonya felt welcomed for who she was. She had endured stigmatization from friends and family. A co-worker became emotional when she revealed she had HIV. Yet Hope House gave Tonya the support and strength she needed to endure and educate people away from their biases, and even how to combat her own.
“When I first found out I was positive, I was afraid,” says Tonya. “I was afraid I would die in front of my children while they were with me. I was afraid I would be alone, and I even struggle with this fear today.”
Tonya remembers feeling like “scum” for not being able to provide healthy and quality housing for her children and sometimes not being able to afford groceries. She admits she had to take routes she didn’t want to for money to ensure her children could eat. She was depressed and unhappy with no direction or guidance to point her where she needed to go.
“But there’s hope. There’s a silver lining around every cloud.”
Hope House introduced Tonya to a system of care that was invested in her success. A year after she was admitted as a client, Hope House assisted Tonya with finding a home for her and her children. It was the first time in a long time that Tonya had a place of her own and her children had their own room. Thanks to a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Hope House can assist clients with finding quality and affordable housing for their families.
“I was so excited. I stopped by garage and estate sales to find furniture. It’s all mine. I was so grateful for our first night. There were no lumps or bumps. I slept like a baby.”
Tonya is now a junior at the University of Memphis, studying computer engineering with a minor in social work. Her dream is to interconnect all HIV databases to support clients and reduce the number of times they have to relive and retell their story. Her daughters are straight-A scholars. Her oldest was recently inducted into the National Junior Beta Club and her youngest won her school-wide spelling bee.