Sonja Sampson stood at a bus stop in Englewood and closed her eyes.
When she did, she tried to envision her future. She saw nothing. Just darkness. Just a blanket of black.
She tried again. She wanted to see something, to envision anything.
“You know, when you close your eyes, you might see somebody running past?” she says now, 15 years later. “It was just plain, jet black. I hoped something would come, but it never came.”
That scared her. Her life up until then had been a swirl of drugs and parties. It got so bad she lost custody of her four kids. But losing them did not compel her to change. The darkness, however, did.
January 13, 2002. That was the day at the bus stop. The blackness shook Sonja to her depths. She called her father, who picked her up and drove her to a drug rehabilitation center.
She had tried before and been in and out of drug treatment centers. But this time, at Haymarket Center’s West Loop location, it stuck. She didn’t want to go back to the blackness.
It had been well over a decade since the very first time Sonja got high.
“The bottom is the moment you take that first hit,” she says. “That’s the bottom right there.”
It started when she was a teenager with weed. She moved to crack and to cobbled-together drug cocktails, cut with nail polish or even embalming fluid.
“It was an escape,” she says.
Childhood, for Sonja, was harsh. Her mom called her and her sister cruel names. She swore at them.
“They were real strict,” Sonja says of her mom and grandma, who said she could rarely leave the house as a child. “As soon as we were able to, we were up and out.”
Sonja was 16 years old when she had her first child; a couple of years later, she had her second. Shortly after that, the father of her children was shot and killed.
“That’s when everything started to spiral down,” she says.
Sonja spent her life all over Englewood, at 54th and Aberdeen Streets, 57th and Elizabeth Streets and then at 51st and Bishop Streets.
“51st and Bishop was the hardest turn in my life,” she says. “Everyone on the whole block was doing drugs and drinking.”
Sonja stood there on a recent Monday afternoon, dressed in black and gesturing while standing in a vacant lot of overgrown grass. She gazes across the grounds, an arm gesturing, her brown eyes peering through ebony glasses and letting memories wash over her in the spot where she used to live, when the drug addiction started and her kids were taken away.
Here, too, she had to deal with her first husband.
The first time he hit Sonja was their wedding day.
“I had on a certain outfit and had a couple of buttons loose,” she says, “and he said, ‘We’re married now, button it up!’”
He pushed her, hit her. Sometimes, she would fight back.
“It was straight up like men in a street fight,” she says. “It was terrifying.”
She found out her husband was manic depressive. The abuse continued. But she stayed, partly because she found out she was pregnant and partly because she craved the company.
“I was so scared of growing old alone,” she says.
Together, they continued with the drugs.
“He wanted to get high, so I got high with him, and it led to me not wanting to stop.”
Her husband, she says, had two other children outside of their marriage. A few years later, he served her with divorce papers, and Sonja was relieved.
Still, the drug addiction continued. During this period, she dabbled in petty crime, racking up a record and jail stints for retail theft. One day, her sister called the police when Sonja left her children at home to go get high. Her youngest child was not yet in kindergarten.
“I can’t believe I was so strung out that I left them alone,” she says. “I was confused. It was my fault.”
Her kids would be gone for seven years.
It wasn’t until after Sonja’s stay at the Haymarket Center—she spent six months in treatment and six months in recovery—that Sonja got her kids back from foster homes and extended family members.
Getting them back was an adjustment.
“It was something I wasn’t used to,” she says. “It was all four of them, plus a grandchild.”
Sonja started work as a cashier at a neighborhood McDonald’s. Four years later, she got another job behind the cash registers at a neighborhood Burger King.
“Working in fast food is horrible,” she says, citing the environment.
After seven years at Burger King, Sonja needed to take a few months off for knee surgery. After she healed, she showed up at Burger King, ready to resume work, only to find out her boss hadn’t held her job.
“I cried,” she said.
Her second husband, Stephen Giddens, who treated her well, picked her up.
Soon after, she happened to grab a flyer. It had information for Breaking Ground, a program of I-58, a mission of The Navigators focused on investing in and lifting up under-resourced communities. Sonja went through the APL Teaching Factory, a vocational program at Breaking Ground. (APL stands for “A Planting of the Lord” from Isaiah 61:3.) She was trained on computer skills and nabbed her APL certificate.
“I liked Breaking Ground most because of the spiritual aspect it had,” Sonja says, citing support from mentors like longtime staffer Connie Milton.
“I remember leaving [Breaking Ground] and being like, ‘There’s something still missing,’” she continues. “It made me realize God was missing out of my life. I had a good husband, nice friends, but without God, life was a wreck.”
At the same time, Sonja went searching for a neighborhood church. Her permanent worship home, she resolved, would be the first church in which someone took the time to greet her.
She went to about three churches where no one said anything to her. And then, when she was about to give up, it happened at Bread of Life Missionary Church on 63rd Street: a woman reached out with a smile and words of welcome.
Months later, she and her husband were baptized there.
“That spirituality was something I never had,” Sonja says of the guidance she received at Breaking Ground and at her local church.
Sonja, now a grandmother of four, loved Breaking Ground so much she went back to volunteer about two years ago, performing janitorial services. Shortly after, Doug Welliver, the former chief operating officer at Breaking Ground, hired and trained her.
“Sonja was a valuable team member,” Welliver says. “She assumed ownership of the jobs she was given and proactively looks for opportunities to save money or otherwise strengthen the organization. She was also very teachable and humble.”
Sonja says she was awestruck at where her career went with Breaking Ground. She has a job now in which, unlike her years at the fast food restaurants, she gets the chance to sit at a desk. Not only that, she works with computers daily and has a role in transforming lives like hers.
“I still can’t believe it,” says Sonja, 50. “I didn’t have a high education. I never looked forward to a future. When it was, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ It was, ‘Hopefully alive!’”
Sonja worked at Breaking Ground for five years, ultimately becoming assistant to the chief operating officer. More recently, she became a home health aide, a job she credits Breaking Ground with helping her qualify for when a lawyer provided by the organization helped her through the process of expunging her criminal record. She was able to do this expungement under state law but credits Breaking Ground with giving her the courage to pursue it.
At about the same time Sonja volunteered and then began work at Breaking Ground, Sonja experienced heartbreaking loss. In the course of three months, her mother, father-in-law, and cousin died. And then in August 2015, as the result of an infection in his gum, her husband had a massive heart attack. He died, too.
Breaking Ground staffers attended her mother’s and husband’s funerals and provided emotional support. She goes to therapy regularly at an office a couple of miles east of her brick house near 63rd Street.
“If it wasn’t for me getting into Breaking Ground, I probably would have been still miserable with my husband passed,” she says. “I probably would have went back to drugs.”
Her dream now, she says, is to watch her grandkids grow. On her kitchen wall in Englewood, she’s taped a collection of index cards, each one containing her granddaughter’s spelling words: big, see, number, people. She wants to mentor her grandkids, to steer them toward a journey different from her own. She has lived a life filled with pain, yes, but also one abounding with redemption.
“I don’t say that Breaking Ground saved my life,” she says. “I say they made me realize my life was worth saving.”
Erin Chan Ding is a freelance journalist with Chicago Navigators.