Carmita Blake learned early in life the importance of a village in raising children and providing support to families. She also learned that a village may begin with a family, but quickly grows beyond that, spreading out into the broader community.
Born and raised in Rockford, Illinois, Carmita grew up in the southwest quadrant of the city, where she lived with her sister and parents. From age six to thirteen, she spent much of her time during the summer, and other days when school was out, at the St. Elizabeth Community Center, on South Main Street, just a short walk from her home, where she enjoyed activities ranging from social events to classes in piano and ballet. It was at St. Elizabeth’s that Carmita first began to learn the value of community programs to people’s lives, and sparked her interest in some day working in community programs, and helping others.
Realizing early that she wanted a career in community health, at age fourteen Carmita began volunteering at Rockford Memorial Hospital as a “Candy Striper,” the name given to the young female hospital volunteers at that time, for the red and white striped uniforms they wore. At age eighteen, she began volunteering at the Winnebago County Health Department, where she served for two years before being hired into a paying position in the health department’s family planning department.
Following high school graduation and overlapping with her time at the health department, Carmita attended Northern Illinois University, working towards a degree in community health. During that time, she held various summer jobs as well, and, before graduating from NIU, served an internship with the American Heart Association in Rockford, where one of her first responsibilities was to clean the mannequin used for CPR training. (Click "read more," below, to read the rest of Carmita's story.)
Tony Frazier would have you believe that the services and support he received from the Community Action Agency are what saved him from becoming an all too familiar statistic. But when you are lucky enough to hear him share his story of overcoming innumerable hardships and extol the virtues of his unwavering faith, it becomes clear that it is his fierce determination and unwavering commitment to building a better life that have turned his story from tragedy to triumph. He not only survived a life that most of us cannot even imagine; he overthrew the reigning dark forces and established his own, inspiringly prosperous realm.
Tony describes the Chicago neighborhood in which he grew up as “where mostly all the crime is at,” and there as a young child he persistently encountered drugs, guns, and violence. With a father who dealt drugs and a mother who was addicted to them, he lost his parents to prison very early in life. And while he was blessed to be taken in by his great grandmother, Willie Mae - a strong Christian woman who always impressed upon him the importance of seeking guidance from God - his luck turned significantly when she passed away and Tony and his siblings became wards of the state. After enduring a series of foster homes in which he suffered abuse, Tony and his sisters were forced to move in with their grandmother, June - a woman who was significantly less kind than her mother and who created a fearful living environment, in stark contrast to the sanctuary of Willie Mae’s home. There, Tony was regularly abused, both physically and verbally.
“You’re not going to be #@%#!” June would tell Tony as she repeatedly “put her hands on” him. Yet he never challenged her. He had been taught to always respect his elders, so Tony endured a home life that was unbearably tumultuous. “My uncles always stole my stuff, and I got in fights with them,” Tony recalls. One uncle in particular would regularly beat him up, and it was when that uncle hit him, causing him to fall down the stairs, that Tony realized just how little his life meant to his grandmother June. When he told her what his uncle had done, “she didn’t give a damn,” he confesses. It occurred to him then that no matter how often he told her that his uncle had hurt him or stolen from him, she never gave a damn. She defended her son and dismissed her grandson.
One day it became too much for Tony. When his grown uncle had stolen from him yet again, and June physically assaulted Tony as she defended the thief, Tony finally pushed her; then, he ran away.
That is when Tony says he “went back to the streets.” In retrospect, Tony realizes that the people with whom he was living were manipulating him, using him. But he didn’t care; the only thing that mattered at that point was being free of the trauma inflicted upon him time after time in June’s house. He had to escape.
And for young men on the streets of “K-Town” in Chicago, selling drugs was one of the only ways they could survive, so Tony did. He professes that he was living the “thug life” during that time, “running with bad friends,” technically homeless,“just trying to get a roof over my head - trying to survive.” And to hear him describe being shot at multiple times, then tied up and held at gunpoint during a robbery, it is miraculous that he did.
In the midst of this dark lifestyle, about two years after he had fled from his grandmother June’s house, Tony received notice that she was in the hospital, in a coma. When he went to see her, he felt compelled to apologize to her for what he felt had been unconscionable behavior. He needed her to know that he was sorry for what he had done, but because she was not able to hear him, he was wracked with guilt as he left that day. For a long time, Tony agonized over his inability to gain closure before June passed a month later. His guilt over having pushed her - and not having been able to make amends - fueled a fiery anger within him that would take a special man at the Rockford Rescue Mission to snuff out.
Tony had lived in Rockford briefly before, having been brought here by a friend. For a couple of years he went back and forth between Rockford and Chicago, until that moment he sat tied up with a gun to his head. On that day, he realized, “I don’t want to die this young; I don’t want my life to end this way.” He thought back to all the times his great grandma Willie Mae had taught him about making better choices, though until then he had not listened. At that moment, he says, “The only voice I could hear was my great grandma Willie Mae saying, ‘There’s a better life.’” So Tony realized, “If I had just one last choice to make a better life, I would.” God spared him that day, he says, and he considered it his one chance. “What I had to do to escape is to move out of the city itself and leave the thug life behind because I realized that after seeing my friends being killed left and right, I had to think about what I wanted to do with my life - end up in prison or the graveyard? So I came to the realization that there is something greater for me out there. But first I had to escape this life and go to a place where I can start all over again.” (Click on "read more," below, to read the rest of Tony's story.)
Barb Chidley is the chair of the communications committee for the Community Action Agency Advisory Board. A former teacher at Auburn High School, Barb is passionate about alleviating poverty and uplifting members of our community.
You’ve got to understand your moral responsibility - then you’ll understand why it’s important to seek knowledge and wisdom.
My pastor taught me not to be a doormat, but that if you’re in a situation that’s going to compromise your integrity, don’t respond to it - walk away. Maybe if we learned to walk away, there’d be a lot less killing.