Debra’s Story: No Longer a Dream Deferred

By LIFT on July 29, 2014

Categories: Our Work, Real Stories


When LIFT-Chicago opened its Uptown office, Debra didn’t hesitate to help handout flyers and information cards to spread the word in the community. She still does this today – each week you can catch her stopping by the office to pick up a new batch of cards to share with her neighbors. But Debra isn’t your average LIFT volunteer; in fact, she isn’t a volunteer at all. She is an enthusiastically engaged LIFT-Chicago Member.

Beyond community outreach, Debra has given her time at numerous LIFT events including open houses and LIFT LOCAL, LIFT-Chicago’s annual fundraiser. During these times, Debra opens up about her life providing insight into what it’s like to be a Member and sharing about LIFT’s transformative role in her life.

LIFT Program Fellow, Vivien Tsou, reflects, “Every time Debra visits LIFT, she brightens our office with her colorful personality! Debra can strike up a conversation with anyone. You will find her chatting with our staff members, Advocates and Members in the office, listening to people’s stories and giving support. She can make a total stranger feel like an old friend.”

Life was always full of possibility for Debra, but in recent years, times didn’t seem so bright.

A native of Southside Chicago, when Debra was 19, she enrolled in Kennedy King College to receive her degree in business administration. After Debra took a leave from school to raise her first child, supporting her family quickly became Debra’s number one priority. At the same time, one of Debra’s close friends died from HIV/AIDs and Debra selflessly became the guardian of her friend’s three children. As her family continued to grow, Debra held various jobs as a teacher’s aide, bookkeeper, and motivational speaker. While working to support her family, Debra continued to pursue higher education, but as expected, it was difficult to juggle with her job and family obligations.

After her children had grown, Debra met tough times. When she walked through LIFT-Chicago’s doors in 2010, she was living in a shelter. While staying there, her case manager recommended she visit LIFT for assistance with housing and employment. Immediately, LIFT helped Debra develop a resume and create cover letters for job applications and soon after, she received a position as a banquet server. Debra thrived in her new job and quickly gained the responsibility of training all new employees.

Now that she was excelling at work, Debra was able to focus on securing a place to live. LIFT helped Debra find an apartment and, once she moved in, obtain a voucher to Goodwill to furnish her new place. As she stabilized these key areas, Debra turned her focus to pursuing her true passions – education and helping others. It has always been in Debra’s nature to give back, but with LIFT’s support she has been able to use this passion to guide her profession. Reflecting on her time with LIFT, Debra remarks, “[The staff] pushes me. They motivated me to change and take action… [to strive to] help others with love.”

Even through shaky ground moments, as LIFT-Chicago Executive Director, Ben Reuler, notes, Debra “hasn’t given up, in large part due to the supportive atmosphere at LIFT.” The combination of Debra’s determination and LIFT’s support allowed Debra to see her passions turned into reality.

While working with LIFT, Debra has not only overcome obstacles of homelessness and unemployment, but has also secured a more permanent job that fulfills her desire to support her community. Recently, Debra – with LIFT’s help – was hired as a mentor at Safe Haven, a nonprofit that helps individuals transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency by providing case management, job training and placement, recovery treatment and education. At Safe Haven, Debra mentors 5 individuals on their road to stability. As Anna Mangahas, Debra’s supervisor, notes, since starting at Safe Haven Debra has been “a very committed and compassionate mentor … she goes above and beyond.”

Her motto of paying it forward is her constant motivator not only in her career but also in her relationship with LIFT. Over the years, Debra has given more back to the community than one could imagine. As Mr. Reuler has said, “we are extremely grateful [Debra] stands so firmly in LIFT’s corner.” In many ways, Debra’s relationship with LIFT has come full-circle. Even though giving back runs in her blood, she still thanks LIFT for her outlook. She says “It was [just] a good feeling to give back to others what LIFT has given to me.”

It’s no surprise that Debra is still working towards her dreams. She hopes to pursue her lifelong passion for music by one-day auditioning for the hit reality television show The Voice. In the meantime, she is working on finishing her bachelor’s degree in business administration. LIFT will continue to support Debra as she sets new goals and will celebrate her success along the way.