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Contagious hope

Story by Shawn Spurrier
Photography by Lauren Hollon Sturdy

The sound of laughter coming from her grandchildren in the next room evokes obvious joy as Annie Williams shows her visitors family photos in her home. She is proud and rightfully so.

Only a few months ago, her joy was only something to be desired. Annie packed her car with three baskets of clothes and a few belongings and drove to Dallas, leaving behind a past marred with pain and abuse. Annie sought a new life for herself and her grandchildren.

“I never thought I would be in the city. I’ve never lived in the city,” Annie says.

Leaving a life with a certain amount of stability in the small East Texas town of Flint was a hard transition. But the life she left behind lacked the spiritual and emotional security she desired.

Annie’s story is difficult. Her mother died when she was 18 and soon after, her father passed away in an automobile accident. She was left to take care of her six brothers and sisters. In addition, she says she and her sisters dealt with the pain of sexual abuse from childhood into their young adult years.

“When you grow up like that, you feel like you are at fault,” she says.

Annie was emotionally wounded and it took a serious toll on her self-esteem.

As the years unfolded, Annie became the mother of two daughters. She did her best to provide for them, often working two jobs. Despite her efforts, her oldest daughter began battling drug addiction at a young age. After having two children, she lost legal custody due to her lifestyle. Since then, Annie has cared for Keylan, now 6, and Kennesty, 10.

Eventually, Annie began dating a man in Flint. They purchased a new home together and she held down a steady job. Throughout this time, though, she still dealt with the scars from her past.

“First I was angry, then I was mad, then I turned bitter. There was no way I could be reached.” Annie didn’t believe God would accept her.

A conversation with a co-worker became the catalyst to a significant heart change. She vividly remembers the words spoken to her: “Miss Annie, everybody is worthy of God’s grace.”

Those words were a revelation. Annie, then in her 40s, says this is the first time she understood the grace of God.

With the truth that had settled in her heart, she had to make a decision about the life she was living and the lessons she was teaching her grandchildren. After struggling with her boyfriend over his lack of commitment to her and her newfound spirituality, Annie decided it was time to take the children and leave everything she had known.

Upon her arrival in Dallas, Annie briefly stayed in family members’ homes before opting to stay in a local homeless shelter. She enrolled Keylan and Kennesty in Nova Academy, a local charter school, and then sought educational opportunities for herself. Even before moving into the shelter, she had heard about Buckner Family Pathways – a program that supports single parents who desire to complete their education and create better lives for their families.

She had always wanted to complete her education; she just needed some security and a safe place to raise her grandchildren while she studied. But she held on to the application for the program until one door after another closed.

Annie enrolled in the pharmacy technician program at Remington College. And with only one week left of her 90-day stay at the shelter, she mustered up the courage to turn in her application to Buckner. Cynthia Rentie, director of Family Pathways, recalls interviewing and giving Annie a tour of the campus and how she immediately felt it was the right decision to accept Annie into the program.

“There was just something about Annie’s conviction, passion, energy and spirit,” Rentie says. “Her story was very compelling to me.”

Annie was accepted on the spot, and was the first grandmother in the program. She promised Rentie she would make her proud and has kept that promise.

“She stuck to everything she said. She jumped in there and never wavered from her goals,” Rentie says.

Since coming to Family Pathways, things have changed dramatically. Annie, now 51, has completed courses at Remington College with high honors and now has a pharmacy technician certification. She plans to enroll in El Centro College later this year to continue her education and eventually, become a registered nurse. Annie wants to pass on the same hope on to her grandchildren.

“I want to teach them to love and to give back and to get a good education in order to get a good job so they can give back. Just like somebody else helped us, you want to extend that as well.”

Her impact is apparent as Keylan and Kennesty are thriving both academically and socially.

Even more, over the past seven months at Family Pathways, Annie has invested herself into her faith. She found a permanent church home at Pleasant Zion Missionary Baptist Church and has been baptized.

“It is very important to get an education but you have to be spiritually grounded,” she says.

“You don’t realize what being around a person can do for you. It can build you up. We are all sisters here (at Family Pathways). We are supposed to look out for one another. We are supposed to encourage each other.”

Annie spends much of her time doing exactly that - encouraging the other women at Family Pathways. Rentie explains that as the only grandmother in the program, Annie acts as a mentor for the other women.

“She’s an example of perseverance and they get to see that hands-on.”

Eager to prepare herself for life outside of Family Pathways, Annie is taking advantage of every opportunity she has to learn. Through the program, she has been able to participate in nutrition classes and financial empowerment classes. She is excited to take the knowledge and equipping she receives and implement it in her life and career.

“I don’t think anyone can say that this program doesn’t work. The Buckner program is teaching us how to live so we won’t end up in this predicament again,” she says. “I was so miserable. That’s why I just picked up everything and left. Now I can lie down in my bed and it feels so good to have peace of mind and not be puzzled about what is going to happen tomorrow.”

She is grateful as she talks about the impact that her pastor, the staff at Buckner and her “sisters” at Family Pathways have had on her.

“It can be dark and lonely ... But there are a lot of people who have helped us and supported us and they have been awesome. They are very good to us at Buckner.”

Through it all, Annie radiates the joy that comes from being a part of a loving community and from finding hope in God.

“I just want to encourage people and let them know that there is a way – God’s way – you just have to step out on faith.”

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