Story and photography by Chelsea Quackenbush
With her two small children in tow, a bruised face and a heavy heart, 20-year-old Amber Fowler packed up her few belongings and headed into the snow-covered streets of a frigid Washington winter, unsure of where to go.
She was 2,000 miles away from her family and home in Texas. She and her children’s father had another big fight and, this time, enough was enough.
Amber found a local shelter and was placed in a transitional housing program. She got a house, found a job and enrolled in school. She was convinced things were going to be different. But then she let her boyfriend back into her life and, soon after, she was pregnant with her third child, Fred, now 5. And it all fell apart again.
Amber is a 26-year-old single mother with four children, ages 10, 6, 5 and 3. She dropped out of school and left home against her father’s urging at the age of 13 and spent the next several years living on the streets, in shelters and in sub-standard housing. She suffered multiple failed relationships, plagued by domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and unplanned pregnancies.
She had her first daughter, Frankie, at age 15. She and Frankie’s father lived together off and on but eventually she decided to leave because she knew life could be different. She was 17 when she left.
She went to another shelter for a couple of weeks and managed to get her own apartment and a job. Amber didn’t seem to have too much trouble finding jobs, but she never made enough money to support herself, let alone a family. Without a high school education, employment was limited.
In 2005, she “made a bad decision and ended up on the streets again,” she said. The two went to another shelter, which is where she met her youngest kids’ dad. They got jobs and an apartment, and got back on their feet.
Amber got pregnant with her second daughter, Rebecca, now 6. They decided to move to Washington with his family.
“I’d never been out of Texas and we were in love,” Amber recalled. “His mom was up there and she had a job for him and a car for us to drive. We had a whole little house to ourselves. So I said, ‘Cool, let’s go.’ I only had two kids at the time.”
The situation quickly escalated into a nightmare, she said. Her girls witnessed a lot of the chaos. She tried to escape but they always got back together.
Amber became pregnant with Fred before deciding to return home to her family.
In 2008, they came back to Texas and Rachel, her last child, was born in 2010. Amber managed to get away from her children’s father and get her own apartment in Conroe, still working dead-end jobs, still wanting to go to school, still fighting to make ends meet.
But she didn’t feel safe and felt like she still needed to get away from her children’s father so once again, they headed to a shelter. But this time, the outcome was different.
Amber met Brenda Shuttlesworth, the program director of Buckner Family Place in Conroe. After hearing about Family Place – a self-sufficiency program that provides housing and supportive services for single-parent families while parents pursue their education full-time – she quickly applied and was accepted.
“When I met Amber, I knew she was just one of those people who had a lot of potential if she were ever given a break in life,” Shuttlesworth said. “She’s very bright. And Amber truly knows the world. She knows what it’s like to struggle, yet through education, she’s going to have a better life for herself and for her children.”
Amber is a survivor and wants people to know that the hope that shines forth in her life comes from her personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Since coming to Buckner, Amber has taken parenting classes, abuse recovery classes and most importantly, earned her GED and enrolled in college.
School hasn’t come without its challenges, especially while trying to keep track of four children, but somehow, she manages.
“I couldn’t do it without God. He is my rock and to Him all the glory, truly,” she said. “But we have a routine that we stick to and it normally all goes smoothly. I look at it like my own little assembly line.”
Amber gets to school by 8 a.m. in order to do homework for two hours before her first class. She has a three-and-a-half hour class, a 20-minute break for more homework and then another three hour class. She stays at school until 6 p.m. to do homework and then heads home to get her four kids to start on their evening routine.
The kids are more secure in their physical location and also in their family relationship. Each child gets to spend one-on-one time with their mom. Sometimes they go ice skating or get their nails done. They have play dates with their cousins, go to the movies, go to the zoo and have birthday parties. And a non-negotiable for each of her kids is a college education.
“If there’s one thing I hope my kids have learned through all this, it’s to go to college and to know that I would never leave them. They’re not going to decide to drop out of school; they’re not going to get pregnant. They’re not going to do the things I did. They are going to college.”
Amber acknowledges that she’s changed a lot since coming to Family Place and that she has a long way to go. She’s more secure with herself and doesn’t second-guess everything like she used to. She’s learning to process how she was raised and how to change her future.
She frequently has to ask for help at school because she doesn’t have the educational foundation from junior high and high school, but the teachers who know her story are supportive. She struggles with math but she placed into college-level English when she took the entrance exam for Lonestar State College.
She’s on track to complete her associate degree in the spring of 2013 and hopes to obtain her bachelor’s degree and then continue on to seminary at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary or Christ for the Nations to become a social worker.
“I feel like shelters are going to be part of my ministry,” Amber said. “I want to help families and children, mostly mothers, to be able to provide for the children in a sufficient way, kind of like Buckner is doing for us. I’ve been in situations where I know that my experience can help other women. I want to let them know that regardless of where you come from, there’s hope – and anyone can make it.”
Amber wants to work for Child Protective Services as a social worker but she doesn’t want to stop there. She wants to help make changes and raise money for CPS organizations.
Sometimes, when she reflects on her life, she doesn’t even recognize who she used to be, she said.
“I’ve experienced a lot,” Amber said. “But when I’m sitting here, talking about it, it’s like a whole other person. Even when I think about how others view me, I just think there’s no way I’m that person. I’m not sure how I ever was that person. But God has shown himself true in my life.”
Amber is taking parenting classes and also completed abuse recovery at a local church. She’s interested in other self-help classes the church offers because she likes the Biblical basis for the lessons.
Shuttlesworth has seen the changes in Amber, too. Her communication style is different, both with her children and her peers. She’s not as prone to raise her voice. She places more value on education and helping herself. She is slowly learning to trust people again.
The first Family Place residents in Conroe moved in in 2010. The program is a community-based model which includes a lot of small group meetings between the mothers. Their groups are spiritually based, depending on what’s going on in everyone’s lives. Shuttlesworth believes the community aspect is what leads to success in the program.
“Another reason why I wanted Buckner so bad was because I wanted to be different,” Amber said.” I wanted to live a different life than my family. I wanted to be a different parent to my children than my mom was to me. The holistic aspect is really what enticed me. The part where it teaches us to become self-sufficient and to be OK in our own skin, and to trust our judgment. It’s taught me so much. And I am truly grateful and humbled to be in the program.”
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