Turning Her Life Around and
Becoming a Loving, Contributing Member
of Her Community

As shared by
Erica (Ricky) Gustafson Granchalek

A Transformed Person       Traumatic and Violent Life Experiences
"Angels" Help Her Get Life in Order
A Good Person, Friend, and Now Neighbor

A Transformed Person

I first saw Sheila when she was panhandling near the morning commuter train in Evanston, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Months later, having completely forgotten about her, I saw her sitting in a group at a local church that is known for its social-outreach programs. It was in one of these meetings that I overheard her comment that she “wanted to thank God for doing for her what she could not do for herself.” I remember thinking to myself “I wonder what accounts for her complete transformation?” She was indeed a different person than the one I remembered in front of the train station.

Since that morning I have learned more about Sheila’s life and the inspiring past five years that have resulted in her becoming a much-loved, contributing member of our community as well as a mentor to others who have suffered loss from death, homelessness, and the disease of alcoholism.

Traumatic and Violent Life Experiences

Sheila’s mother was an alcoholic, and her home life included much fighting and discord, as her parents were ill-prepared to lead a stable family life. Sheila began drinking her parents’ Boones Farm when she was 12. As a student, she never mastered reading, though she continued to be passed up to the next grade level each year. She studied little and seldom attended her classes. She constantly picked fights with other girls and was eventually expelled at age 15 when she hit a teacher. It was at this time that she began to smoke pot in earnest and to deal drugs in her neighborhood.

In 1971, her mother shot her father to death resulting in the family being disbursed to foster homes as the mother went to jail. Her mother was released in 1972 when it was established that she had acted in self defense. She died the next year of alcoholism. All are proud to call Sheila _ quoteSheila’s aunt came to assist the now-orphaned children and cleaned the family out of the tiny inheritance and SSI checks intended for the younger siblings. In an argument with the aunt over the stolen funds, Sheila was hit with a bottle and still carries the scars from that altercation.

For the next 15 years, Sheila lived with her niece and brothers and sisters in Chicago’s south side projects. The niece, with her traumatic upbringing, began to run with a bad crowd and was later stabbed to death. Sheila’s brothers were sent to prison for petty theft. One of her brothers is still in prison today.

For several years she was able to work at a job but in the end alcohol took its toll and once again she was out of work. In the mid 1980s, she began her love affair with heroin and cocaine and in 1989 she went through what was to be her first of many de-tox programs. It would work for a short period of time but then she went back out, in part she explains, to rid herself of the grief of losing her boyfriend at that time who was killed by a drunken driver.

"Angels" Help Her Get Life in Order

She continued to have brief periods of sobriety, seeking occasional help at the local Howard Area Community Center (Rogers Park in the northern part of Chicago) for services and resources. There she met with the “angels” who kept providing her with the necessary support to get her life back in order. She remembers especially her case-worker Sheila, who kept reminding her “you could do so much better.” These social workers continued to support her with resources like clothes, bedding, toothpaste, and so on -- which helped Sheila during her day-to-day struggles to survive.

Sheila reached the end of the line when she found herself homeless yet again and sleeping in a truck. Having danced with heroin, cocaine and alcohol, having been in and out of treatment centers and hospitals, Sheila finally picked her last fight and ended up in jail for a three-month term. It was there that she found herself at her first AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting -- a non-negotiable requirement for the residents of Cook County Jail with a history of addiction problems. It was there also that she was given the gift of realizing that this was the end of the line. That day, as she sat in that meeting she realized it “was over," and that this was exactly where she belonged, and that God was doing for her what she couldn’t do for herself.

A Good Person, Friend, and Now Neighbor

When she found herself in the jail, she could not read above a third grade level. When she returned to Evanston, her fellow recovering friends jumped at the chance to teach her to read. Since then, Sheila has taken huge steps and is now back at Sheila and EricaHoward Area Community Center preparing for her GED. She is reading on an 11th grade level. She is quick to mention that all of these wonderful things are happening without her permission. She quit her full time job to continue school and will soon be ready to obtain another, better job. Presently, she is the main caregiver for her sister who is very ill with cancer. She helps her to attend her regular appointments and provides all of her daily necessities while her sister is living with her.

Since that first day in AA, Sheila has continued to go to meetings and work the twelve steps (suggested steps in AA). She is now serving as a sponsor to others and a mentor to many. She is loved by all, from all walks of life including doctors, lawyers, and CEOs -- as well as those who are just up from a homeless shelter where she once lived.

Sheila now has a life that no bottle, drug or person could ever provide but one that she has been searching for all her life. She prays daily to be relieved from the bondage of self. She talks to her sponsor and takes her direction. Her wall is “slowly coming down,” she says.

All are proud to call Sheila their friend. Her personality and sense of humor and spirituality are hard to resist.

Pictures -- thanks to Erica (Ricky) Gustafson Granchalek.