Every Friday, I walk into Moore Place and am greeted by a hug and smile from Von. Chances are that if you’re a regular Moore Place visitor, you’ve been greeted similarly. In addition to feeling welcomed, the time I have reading with Von and our co-book club leader, Meredith, serve as a quiet respite after what always seems to be a hectic and hurried week. But Von’s life hasn’t always included time for quiet reading and casual conversation, nor has Von always approached others with outstretched arms. As Von, no doubt would tell you, there were many years when life was hard, addiction was all-consuming, and hiding was routine.
Like so many Moore Place residents, Von was actually born and raised in Charlotte. Von can still remember the name of the doctor who delivered her and the story of her mother walking to the hospital in the snow to deliver what would be the third of five daughters. Von readily accounts a happy childhood in Charlotte. She can recall the names of specific teachers who supported her and childhood friends she maintains contact with even today. Perhaps one of Von’s favorite stories to tell is the one where she earned her nickname. When Von was about six, she greeted her daddy as he was walking up to their house after work. Von’s daddy handed her a bag of cookies he’d brought with him from work and gave her strict instructions to share them with her sisters. Unfortunately, Von’s sweet tooth got the best of her, and she carried the entire bag of cookies to her hiding spot underneath the house. As her parents and sisters searched for her in the house, Von quickly devoured each cookie until her daddy finally found her beneath the house, covered in cookie crumbs. Von’s daddy humorously scolded her and began calling her Cookie, a nickname that would last into adulthood.
Von also remembers her struggles with school. Although she enjoyed reading, counting and telling time did not come easily for her. Perhaps because academics were challenging, Von was a self-proclaimed class clown. Ultimately, though, Von’s antics in school became more problematic and she was kicked out of high school in the 9th grade. Although she had some fun partying with her friends in the years following, what started as fun evolved into patterns of drug and alcohol abuse, eventually contributing to addiction and homelessness.
Von began experiencing homelessness in her early 30s. As is the case with other Moore Place residents, Von’s drug addiction resulted in her losing her job, then her apartment, and ultimately living on the streets. For 15 years, Von lived on the street where she was in and out of jail and known widely by her childhood nickname: Cookie. Although she had a son whom she loved, she regularly hid from him (and any other family or childhood friends, for that matter) out of embarrassment. When any of her Charlotte friends or family offered to take her in, she refused out of fear that she would steal from them.
Over time, Von found organizations and individuals around Charlotte who could help her. Through these networks, Von began to work through her addictions and to listen to an inner voice telling her: “I’m too strong of a woman, and God will give me the power to be a strong woman”. As Von continued to gain some control over her addictions, her faith began to deepen and she started to believe that one day she would get a place of her own. Now, Von has lived at Moore Place for six years, and has worked to rebuild her relationship with her son, to get clean, to participate in many of the activities that Moore Place offers, and to learn how to count and tell time. Von loves having her own apartment where she can shut the door, turn on gospel music, and read her Bible. Von’s love of learning and reading have not stopped as she’s gotten older. Instead, she is slowly taking GED classes to help her with math and counting, and tells her grandchildren and any school-age visitors to Moore Place about the importance of staying in school and learning.
A mere 6 years ago, Von would have hidden from the familiar faces of family and friends. She would have hidden her stories, her addictions, and her homelessness. But today, Von is an open book. Von’s outstretched arms as I walk into Moore Place on Fridays say so much about her and what has changed in her life. Not only do Von’s hugs make people feel welcomed, they’re a physical symbol of her focus on others: her love for her family, her joy in making new friends, and her determination to tell others about the importance of faith and learning. Von has worked hard to get to a place where hugs and smiles come easily. Every hug is a celebration of the faith that got her here and all the positive change that has come about because of it.