The words of a local police officer are seared into Cyndi Russell’s heart forever: “You’ll never amount to anything. You’re just like your mother.”
“I’ll never forget what he said to me and how it made me feel,” Russell says. “For a while, he was right. But I’m going to prove him wrong. I will prove him wrong.”
Russell grew up in Wichita, Kansas with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, who she calls “Dad.” Life was difficult and chaotic from the beginning. They were both addicted to drugs and often had trouble providing for Russell and her younger brother.
One evening, 12-year-old Russell wandered down a dark street in the middle of the night, scanning for the cocaine dealer’s home. Her parents sold the brand new bike she got for Christmas to the dealer for drugs. Russell scraped up all the money she could find in her house and snuck out in the middle of the night to make a deal of her own. She wanted her bike back.
“We never had anything of our own,” Russell says. “Except we always got brand new gifts for Christmas. But my parents would usually end up selling it all for drugs.”
Now, Russell is 28 years old and living at Buckner Family Pathways in Dallas with her almost 5-year-old son, Selah. Family Pathways is a program designed to help single parents like Russell earn an education and gain valuable life skills while providing them and their children a safe living environment
Her days start at 5:30 a.m. She gets herself ready, then Selah. They leave their house by 7 for school and work. On days Russell doesn’t have class, she goes to work early to do homework, study and write papers.
In the evenings, she attends functions at Family Pathways or helps drive other women to church and Celebrate Recovery.
“I don’t have any family,” Russell says. “I lost my mom in 2010, and my dad and brother are on-again, off-again drug users. The support and the family environment here has been so impactful.”
Russell stood in handcuffs outside of Walmart next to a police cruiser while officers asked her questions about Selah and waited for someone to pick him up so they could take her to jail.
She had been working 60 hours a week to provide for her son and her son’s father, who had been laid off and started doing heroin. They had no money and were desperate. He convinced her to steal from Wal-Mart with a “fail proof” plan – except they got caught and she was the one who was arrested.
“[My boyfriend] left us at Wal-Mart,” Russell said. “I didn’t have a phone or anything. We had lost almost everything. So I finally got them to get ahold of [my boyfriend’s] dad. His wife came to pick Selah up and I’ll never forget the look on her face when she picked him up. Just disgust.”
Russell was sentenced to 18 months in a state jail but ended up with a shortened sentence of four months. It was the longest four months of her life.
“I didn’t know where my son was, if he was OK,” she said. “While I was in jail, I prayed. I knew [his dad] wasn’t right. I cried when I would sit down to eat because I didn’t know if my baby was being taken care of, if he was being fed. So I prayed for Child Protective Services to step in and get Selah. I knew that’s what was best for him.”
CPS placed Selah with his paternal grandparents while Russell waited to be released from jail.
Currently, Russell attends El Centro College in Dallas and is pursuing an associate degree in business administration. When she’s not in school, she works as the administrative assistant for Exodus Ministries, a year- long program for formerly incarcerated women and their children by helping them build stability as they navigate life after prison.
At Exodus, she answers phones, coordinates volunteers and mentors and whatever else is asked. She sifts through applications of women who have written in trying to get into the program to help staff decide if they’re a good fit. She also tends to the garden in the back of the building.
Russell went through the Exodus program after her fourth – and final – stint in prison.
“I graduated from Exodus in 2014 and I had my own apartment for exactly a year,” she says. “It’s hard out there. We lived alone. I was used to having somebody where I could go knock on their door at any time. The fact that I have that now [at Buckner] is great. I know my baby is safe.”
She’s a mentor to women in the program who are just starting their journey. Like Russell, several of the Exodus women transition over to the Family Pathways program to earn a degree and continue healing. She has built a community of support at Exodus and Buckner that have become her family.
Russell will never forget the day she was reunited with her son. CPS made arrangements for him to arrive the day after she moved into her apartment at Exodus.
She stayed in the apartment courtyard while his grandparents brought him in. Another girl in the program was by the door, watching him come up the walkway. “He’s so cute!” she told Russell as she anxiously awaited her reunion.
When Selah walked in, he didn’t acknowledge his mom. He went straight for the slide and started climbing on it.
“I couldn’t bring myself to grab him or anything,” Russell says. “I had so many dreams about him and it’s almost like it wasn’t real. All I could do was cry. I just squatted down and looked at him.”
Finally, Russell asked Selah if she could have a hug. Selah hugged his mom for the first time in five months.
Russell is determined to give Selah a better life than she had. She acknowledges his risk of ending up in prison since both she and his father have been.
“Selah is a big part of my determination. If I don’t change our path, he’s two times more likely to end up in prison because both of his parents have been there. I don’t want that for my son.”
Like most moms, Russell wants the best for her son and for herself. She never thought she’d be doing as well as she is today but says Exodus and Buckner are the only reason for it.
One of Russell’s co-workers is painting her a big canvas to hang in her apartment. It will say “failure is not an option,” a meaningful mantra for Russell at this point in her life.
The 5:30 a.m. alarms and late nights working are all worth it in Russell’s mind. She’s building a better story and a better future for her little family. And she’s determined to show that police officer just how wrong he was.