It Takes a Village

It Takes a Village

Woman’s love for her children led her to Mercy Home’s Friends First program

Mercy Home is more than just an organization; it’s a family. And like any other family, we are here to support our members, whether they are our residential youth, our Community Care members or their families, our donors, or our coworkers. This all-embracing support is something Ms. Val discovered during a difficult time in her life.

When Ms. Val was diagnosed with cancer after a routine mammogram, she immediately went into “panic mode.” 

“Cancer is scary—the word itself is super scary,” she said. But her panic wasn’t for herself. Instead, it was for the two young boys in her care. She was their guardian since they were babies and she worried they would be put back into the system if something happened to her.

While searching for a way to make sure her boys, Greg and Semaj, were taken care of, someone told her about Mercy Home. She didn’t know anything about the Home but hoped it would just be a place where she could take the boys and know they could find another loving home if she became unable to care for them. But Mercy Home became much more to the family.

“It turned out they were my lifesavers,” Ms. Val said.

When she first went to Mercy Home, Ms. Val had not yet told her boys that she was sick. They knew something was wrong and were beginning to act out. She wanted to explore whether they would be in better hands living at our Home. 

But after the boys talked to coworkers at Mercy Home, it became clear that they didn’t need full-time residential care. 

“I never thought they were bad boys,” Ms. Val said. “But I didn’t think I would be able to do anything for them because the chemo and radiation had me so out of it. Things that I used to do with them I could no longer do. I couldn’t take them anywhere because I had no energy.”

Instead of residential care, Mercy Home offered another solution: our Friends First mentoring program. Friends First matches kids ages 9 to 17 with a well-trained mentor who allows them to explore beyond their neighborhood, have new experiences, and gain a positive role model.

Our coworkers explained to Ms. Val that Greg and Semaj’s mentors would help them get out of the house and have the experiences she currently wasn’t able to give them.

Mercy Home showed me that there was help out there and that it’s all kinds of help.

“Mercy Home became my lifesaver through the mentors,” Ms. Val said. “I never in my wildest dreams could have foreseen somebody putting those boys together with a person that was so compatible with them.”

When the boys started struggling in school, Mercy Home stepped in to make sure both had tutors who would help them get back on track. She said that Semaj’s whole life turned around because of his tutor, Phil, who eventually became his mentor. 

“He went from barely passing to a straight A student,” Ms. Val said. “[It was] remarkable. Mercy Home showed me that there was help out there and that it’s all kinds of help.”

Since connecting with Mercy Home, both Greg and Semaj have learned how to swim. They also were able to go skating with their mentors, a favorite pastime before Ms. Val got sick. 

“One of my first times going to a museum other than a school field trip [was with my mentor],” Semaj said. “I went on my first roller coaster ride not too long ago. [My mentor] Phil is someone to look up to when I get older. We’re always laughing and joking.”

The time spent with their mentors helped Greg and Semaj focus on something other than Ms. Val’s cancer.

“They’re handling it age appropriately,” she said. “They’re scared, but they [are] just wonderful kids.”

Greg and Semaj aren’t the first two children that Ms. Val has welcomed into her home. A Chicago native, she credits her mother for providing an example that inspired her to care for children who weren’t her own. 

“I had a child as a teenager,” she said. “If it wasn’t for my mother, I don’t know how he would have turned out. And my mother took him in and helped raise him. I thank God somebody was there to help me. So, it was easy for me to understand [when others needed help raising their children]. And it feels really good when you see them grow up and turn out to be something great.”

Ms. Val raised her granddaughter, as well as countless other kids for both short- and long-term stays. Sometimes it would just be for a few months while the parents took parenting classes and other steps to get their kids back. Others stayed for years.  She had up to nine kids in her house at one time.

“I decided it was my calling and what I wanted to do with my life,” Ms. Val said. “It keeps me moving and keeps me going and keeps me in this fight for life.”

Though Ms. Val has saved many children, she credits Greg and Semaj with being the ones to save her.

“Without these two little boys, I might have given up,” she said. “They gave me a reason to fight.” 

In addition to helping children, Ms. Val also helped others in need throughout her career. She took a hospitality class and fell in love with working in food service. She worked at both the Chicago Art Institute and the Walnut Room at Marshall Fields before working for Inspiration Kitchens, a restaurant run by a nonprofit that provides job training to those experiencing housing instability. 

“I was so inspired by what they stood for,” she said. “It was a time in my life when a homeless person would sit next to me and I would get up and move my seat. But working with Inspiration Kitchens, you learn so much about people that were homeless and the different reasons [why]. It was an amazing journey, and I am still very much involved with them.”

Semaj said that Ms. Val’s drive to help others is at the heart of who she is as a person. 

“She always puts others before herself,” he said. “She most definitely makes sure that me and my brother are happy.”

They say it takes a village. Mercy Home was my village.

“I never had someone in my life who has such a big heart,” Greg added. “Always she has put what others need before what she wanted or needed. No matter who or what, she does her absolute best to support and help.”

But despite having spent much of her life helping people in need, Ms. Val quickly turns the focus to what others have done for her.

“So many people have done it for me, believe me,” she said. “What I have learned is you really do get what you put out into this universe. And I had a lot of help. They say it takes a village. Mercy Home was my village.”

Ms. Val is still fighting cancer, but thanks to the support she receives from Mercy Home, she is feeling a greater sense of peace about her situation.

“Even if the Lord decides to take me today, I know my boys are going to be okay,” she said. “That was my biggest fear, and I’m not worried about it anymore. I hope to be here [and if I am], I would do this all over again. I would get more kids. Believe me, they keep you going.”

She also hopes that more people will learn about Mercy Home and take advantage of the services we provide. 

“There are so many kids that could benefit from it,” she said. “Mercy Home can really turn lives around.”

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