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Struggling In A Wealthy Town

For Low Wage Earners Like Temika Black, Finding Success Is One Step Up and Two Steps Back

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A New Kind of Freedom

She went back to school, just as she promised her daddy she would, and earned an associate's degree in computer technology. What really helped keep her motivated, Black believes, were those people along the way who told her, "I think you're trying, and I will help you."

In September 2000, she got a car through the Cars for Work program. Black loved the little white 1994 Chevy Cavalier. It was the first car she'd ever owned. She and the kids could go where they needed to go without having to ask neighbors and friends for rides all the time.

Then the following May, another driver ran into her. The wreck totaled her car. The insurance paid her $3,000, she says, but by then she had fallen behind on her bills again. "I thought about a car," Black says, "but I needed to pay my bills."

So instead of replacing her car, she took care of her financial obligations. What did she do with the money that was left? "Bought two pairs of shoes for each of the kids, an outfit for my mom," and with the last little bit of it, "took the kids to Carowinds."

Engaged

She never mentions the man by name, just calls him her fiance. Like her, he was in recovery and making progress when they decided to get married. It would happen in July 2001, they agreed, and Black bought a wedding dress. The couple applied to Habitat for Humanity to try and qualify for a home of their own. They posed for a portrait, Black's manicured hands folded to show off the ring that cost $1,800.

The man and the ring are both gone now. He relapsed and pawned the engagement ring for drug money in an act Black discusses resolutely, fully aware of everything it represented. The amount he got for it? "Thirty dollars."

Breaking The Cycle

Just when there seemed to be no hope ­ this past August and September when the bills were so badly overdue that utilities were getting turned off ­ there was a break. It was one Black had almost been afraid to hope for: the possibility of a job in an office, with her own computer, phone line and work space. A job where she could sit down, not stand on her feet all day.

"That's always been my dream," she says.

Two Grier Heights neighborhood advocates, Cindy Murphy and Saundra Thomas, were discussing possible candidates for a project called the Building Bridges Initiative when Black's name came up. The program works to address issues around crime, safety, infrastructure and after-school activities in the neighborhood.

"I was impressed with Temika's involvement in her church, with her children and their education," says Murphy, the project's director. "She has good relationships with her neighbors and she's a straight talker. She could identify with the needs and understand the goal."

Thomas adds, "She's an exceptionally resourceful person, with energy and self-motivation." Upon hearing Thomas' words, Black looks down, but not far enough to completely hide her smile.

In September 2001, Black was hired as one of two community liaisons for the program. She now works in an office not far from her home. Instead of a fast-food uniform, she wears skirts and suits and heels. She's got her own business card. When you call her office, her voicemail message reminds you to "have a very productive day." So far the job is part-time, but Black wants to work full-time.

"I like what I'm doing ­ I want to see this neighborhood as a better place for our children," she says. "I'm still nervous. I'm outspoken and got to bring it down a bit. I want to do the right thing. I want to do a good job. That's why I make myself nervous."

When Black told her friends that someone was writing an article about her, a few were wary. But Black is determined to tell her story, especially when she remembers how hopeless it all once seemed.

"Back then I used to think there was nobody worse off than me," she says. "My pastor said, 'There's always somebody worse off. Whatever you're going through, somebody else is going through, too.'

"It took me a minute to find Him. I'm still going through, but I still have His mercy and grace. I want my story told because I know there's somebody who has it worse than me."

Looking Ahead

On Election Day, Black caught a ride to her polling place. After she voted, she took her children to the Kids Voting booths and showed them how to fill out the ballots.


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