Kim Covello is a volunteer for Project H.O.M.E. and an occasional contributor to the HOME Word blog. Her last post was about the 100,000 Homes Campaign.
Instead of dealing drugs in the streets of Boston, Esterlina Fernandez now rises at 4 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday every week in her apartment at Project H.O.M.E.’s new James Widener Ray Homes, so she can catch the bus to meet her friends from Back On My Feet for their 5:30 a.m. run. Not many people with normal lives adhere to such an exercise routine, let alone a formerly displaced, homeless woman who only moved to Philadelphia a little over a year ago.
At that time, Esterlina was living in Boston, alone, her relationship with her children severed due to her drug dealing and eventual eleven years spent in jail. Esterlina was dejected, depressed, full of rage, and suicidal. One day, she was at the end of her rope, when she saw Will Smith on TV performing one of his first hits, “Summertime.” Through her tears, she watched Will rapping those lyrics about summertime in Philly: “Back in Philly we'd be out in the park, a place called Plateau, is where everybody'd go…” Esterlina said to no one there, “That's it! That's what I'll do; I'll go to Philly and start over. I'm comingggg, Will!!”
So she sold her belongings and took a Greyhound bus to Philadelphia. It was April 3, 2011. She arrived and went straight to the hospital for her diabetic condition. Esterlina spent those first nights in the overnight cafés for persons who are homeless on the streets – places that have some tables and chairs (no beds) and stay open all night. Esterlina was horrified by the things that went on in the cafés. She would just go there to rest at night, but she always had a pen in one hand and a pencil in the other, ready in her own way, to defend herself. At first, people told her to go back to Boston; that Philly had too many people in shelters already.
But there was no going back for Esterlina. She was determined that Philadelphia was going to be her salvation. An angel arrived soon by the name of Edna. Edna sent her to Eliza at the Sheila Dennis House, a women's shelter on North Broad Street. Every day, Esterlina would walk from Broad and Lehigh to Center City to look for people to talk to, who could help her, anything. Many days, Esterlina would visit Love Park, a place that still holds warm memories in her heart.
One day, as she journeyed to Center City, she watched the Broad Street Run, one of the largest ten-mile races in the country, with over 30,000 people running down Broad Street. She thought it was the most amazing thing she had ever seen. “Beautiful!” she thought.
Soon after, Esterlina met Kate, who was giving sneakers and socks to Esterlina's friend, Wilma, fellow resident at the Sheila Dennis house. Kate worked with Back On My Feet, an organization dedicated to creating independence and self-sufficiency by first engaging homeless people in the world of running, to build confidence, strength, and self-esteem. Members can advance to the “next steps” program by adhering to a strict running schedule and other requirements. The organization has impressive results, with 75 percent of members, like Esterlina, maintaining attendance at 90 percent of their morning training runs.
So Esterlina started running in the early mornings with Back On My Feet. Soon after, she enrolled in Self, Inc. to address leftover alcohol and drug abuse issues still clinging to her. Esterlina completed the program and has been clean for over a year.
Esterlina started looking for more… more people to meet, more work to do, more ways to get involved and give back. She got involved in advocating for the rights and dignity of persons who were homeless: During the “Sidewalks Not Solutions” campaign, which Project H.O.M.E. spearheaded, she marched on City Hall in a self-made costume: She was a queen in a box, with the message “I want to think outside the box, instead of living in it.”
In fact, costume design is one of her amazing talents. Volunteering to hand out water at one of the Back On My Feet races, Esterlina dressed in a “foot costume” that she made out of cardboard and paper. For the Back On My Feet Christmas party, she dressed as a Christmas tree and had more sparkle than the real one. Esterlina has a gift with cardboard and paper, and people started noticing. A community partner of the Leeway Foundation helped Esterlina, who has less than an eighth-grade education, write a grant request. The Leeway Foundation awarded Esterlina $2,400 to organize costume workshops for homeless women at the Sheila Dennis House. The grant specified that Esterlina “teach people to make costumes for public demonstrations … to challenge the stigma surrounding homelessness.”
Esterlina didn't rest on her laurels. She treaded new paths. She took a construction course at opportUNITY, learning from her instructors, Steve Pettiway and William Webb, how to lay floors, put up drywall, install windows and doors, and build a roof. Graduation is on April 20. Esterlina, also working to rebuild a relationship with her children and grandchildren, enrolled in a 12-week parenting class.
Esterlina Fernandez speaking at the March 5 Grand Opening of the James Widener Ray Homes, where she lives.
Recently, one of Esterlina's dreams came true: She moved into her own apartment at James Widner Ray Homes. At the March 5 formal opening of the apartment project, Esterlina stood at the podium, in front of over 150 people, and eloquently told her Philadelphia Story. Edna, Eliza, Kate, and all who knew her, felt a sense of pride and inspiration as she candidly recounted her move from Boston, and then cut the ribbon with Mayor Nutter.
Permanent housing wasn't Esterlina's only dream. She has lots of dreams, and her determination is palpable, which is no surprise. While in prison, she saw her “auntie on TV with Oprah” holding a photo of Esterlina's mother as a baby. Oprah had invited her auntie on the show because Esterlina's family are believed to be sixth-generation descendents of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, one of Jefferson’s slaves at Monticello.
Esterlina is determined to have gastric bypass surgery. She believes it will end her diabetes and save her life. She wants it so she can move better, do MORE, and end her last-place finishes of all the races she's done in Philadelphia with Back On My Feet. “I'm so tired of being last,” she cries into her tissue. But her tears are always mixed with hope “I know I'm going to get it [the surgery], I just know it.”
Esterlina dreams of having a home for seniors, where she can help the elderly with the obstacles of their everyday lives. Esterlina continues to go to Love Park, visiting with her old friends, the homeless men and women there, bringing them sandwiches and candy. “There are a million pieces of me,” she says, “to give and to share with every person [out there] who's not having a good day…”
Esterlina and her friends at the Sheila Dennis House have been working long hours with pieces of fabric, cardboard, paper and other materials to make life-size costumes for the Walk Against Hunger, a walkathon that raises money to support more than 100 food pantries, soup kitchens, and hunger relief agencies in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. This Saturday, April 14, you can catch Esterlina and her friends dressed as a life-size chicken leg, broccoli bunch, oatmeal bowl, banana, can of soup and a cookie. If you want to find Esterlina, just look for the sweet face in the middle of the chicken leg, leading her bunch of foodie friends down the center of Martin Luther King Jr., Drive.