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Three Decades of Care: Monti’s Story
At Mercy Home, we are blessed to have coworkers who have been working with our kids for many years! One of them is Monti Clayton, who has been with the Home since 1989—an amount of time even she can’t believe.
“You tend to track the young people that you come in contact with more so than you do the time that you’ve worked here,” she said. “And then when [an anniversary comes up], it’s almost like a shock to the system because then you track backwards to see how did this all start.”
Beginnings of a Career of Service
Monti’s road to Mercy Home started during their time as an employee for the city of Chicago. She worked in Cabrini Green, a public housing complex.
“That introduced me to a new way of … how people live and the culture of the young people over there, and that was a learning experience for me,” she said. “While we tend to live amidst a lot of things, we’re not always introduced to what’s really happening. And so, Cabrini Green was actually my happening. After a while with the culture over there and visiting people’s homes, I started to understand.”
Monti said she would probably still be working in that position if not for an incident that took place when she had a late night at work. While waiting at a bus stop to go home, she felt what she thought was a bee go past their ear.
“Being ignorant to the culture in a sense, [I didn’t realize] someone was shooting out the window,” she remembered.
When she and a coworker turned to go back inside to shield themselves from the gunfire, Monti was shot.
“We turned to go up these stairs and that’s when I felt it,” she said. “It hit me dead in my head.”
Monti was rushed to the hospital, where they assumed she was a resident of Cabrini Green—something that negatively impacted their care.
“I got abused in the hospital, basically because they were treating me like I’m a victim who won’t defend myself,” she said. “They shaved my hair off, they made me walk to the ER room [from the hospital entrance] bleeding. I know what it means for your life to flash before you. When people start to say that, I understand it, because you’re thinking, oh I should have did this, oh I should have told that person I was sorry, you know, I hope my mother gets here in time to say bye.”
Although she eventually recovered, Monti said that this experience caused their to retreat into their “safe space,” which was teaching preschool. But when the preschool began holding an afterschool program for older kids—something she greatly enjoyed—she gained the courage to continue their work with those who were in need.
“I started getting what I call hunger to step outside of my safe space and see what else I could do,” she said.
“I started getting what I call hunger to step outside of my safe space and see what else I could do.”
When Monti saw that Mercy Home had recently opened a girls campus, she interviewed for a position to work with young women in crisis. She got the job, and when she began there were only six young women living at the Home. “I thought to myself, ‘how easy is this?’” she said.
The idea of an easy job was quickly challenged when Monti was tasked with taking the girls on a camping trip to Colorado.
“We drove to Colorado with these young ladies in the van and instead of six, it seemed like it was fifteen of them.”
The trip was a challenge to both Monti and the young women.
“We hiked up to the mountains, we slept on the ground,” she remembered. “At night we were cold, and then during the daytime we were hot – we were taking off and putting on clothes.”
Aside from the obvious physical challenges of roughing it in the woods, the girls were also faced with another unique challenge.
“It was challenging to these girls because they were going without these things that they had become used to to sustain their self-esteem,” she said. “We didn’t have a mirror. We didn’t have washcloths, we used bandanas to wash up with. So it was really different for them.”
From that point on, Monti’s career at Mercy Home was faced with various difficulties, but one proved particularly tricky: gaining the trust of the young women she worked with.
“The kids find their comfort zone and who they want to talk to and it takes time because they buried all this stuff in,” she explained. “They’re not going to trust you, because what do you want [from them] if they trust you? And so, I just tend to just have conversations.”
Monti explained that instead of asking the young women why they were at Mercy Home, she relied on more natural conversation to build trust with the girls. And when they did open up, hearing the details of the trauma they had faced was heartbreaking.
“You can feel some of their pain,” she said. “And … I would tell them, ‘I can’t say I know what you’re going through, because I don’t. But I can say I feel the pain of what you’re telling me, and I feel bad about it’.”
Knowing the pain so many of the young women at Mercy Home were facing, Monti searched for healthy ways for them to overcome and deal with it other than being forced to talk about it. One of the best ways? Teaching them how to play.
“I found that these teenagers did not know how to play. Although I got in trouble a lot of times for it, yes, I would bring snow inside…And yes, I would have snowball fights inside.”
“I found that these teenagers did not know how to play,” she said. “Although I got in trouble a lot of times for it, yes, I would bring snow inside of the mansion. And yes, I would have snowball fights inside of there. And yes, we would hook up the water hose and have water fights in the backyard. And on occasion, it started inside the house!”
Unfortunately, in addition to being present for the fun our young women had during their time at Mercy Home, she was also there during difficult moments.
Monti received a phone call one day while she was at work that the mother of one of our young women had passed away. The young woman’s uncle came the next morning to break the news to their.
“And the next thing I saw … was [their] running down the hallway screaming,” she said. “I spent a lot of time with them that day.”
Monti even went with the young woman to the funeral home to identify the body—a traumatizing experience for both of them.
“This was their grief and their mourning time, and you know, all I could do was support them,” she said.
This young woman was graduating soon after their mother died, and Monti planned to give them the best graduation possible. She spoke to family members and arranged for them to attend their graduation. She also helped the young woman get accepted and enroll in college. Five years later, she graduated.
“And she made it,” Monti said proudly. “It was a proud day for them, you know, and she told me, ‘this is for my mother’. And I said, ‘And for you too.’”
As the program manager of one of our girls programs, Monti was a parental figure to our young ladies both through being there for the good and bad times, but also helping them take responsibility for their actions.
When the girls made a poor decision, like smoking or cursing and getting involved with a negative peer group, they would receive consequences from program staff. But Monti wasn’t sure this system was working.
“They’ve had consequences all their life,” she said. “Their trauma is a consequence. Why are we doing this? So I came to work one day, and you know, my staff always thought I was a little strange, but they would try some of the stuff I would ask them to do.”
Monti’s idea was to ask the girls to give themselves their own consequences for poor choices. She explained to them that they needed to take responsibility for their actions and decide what their punishment would be. As it turned out, the girls were harder on themselves than program staff would be.
“They came with consequences I would have never gave them all,” Monti laughed. “It was the hardest thing in the world for these young people to recognize you are able to consequence yourself for your actions and this is the learning experience you need to start doing. I will not always be here to say, ‘you have a phone restriction’.”
A New Direction
Several years ago, Monti said the “hunger” to again step out of their comfort zone returned to them. She began to consider the idea of working in AfterCare, which supports Mercy Home alumni.
“It’s weird because I’ve thought about it many times, but three years ago, I told Gewanda [Monroe, the then-youth care supervisor], ‘Gewanda, I don’t think I’m going to be at Mercy Home too much longer. So if you’re going to apply for my job, you got to step it up and pay attention.’”
Though Gewanda didn’t initially take them seriously, Monti continued to warn them about the time she had left to learn from them. And then she saw an open position in AfterCare.
Monti went to Girls Campus Director Amy Schulz to tell them that she wanted to apply for the job. It was a difficult conversation.
“I felt like I was abandoning the whole building,” she said. “I just felt bad about applying. But because I had a lot of AfterCare kids who were calling me … and coming by and inviting me places and letting me once again step inside their lives beyond Mercy Home … I said, it’s time.”
“If I’d done nothing but walk behind these kids just to make sure no more trauma was set on their shoulders, I would feel good.”
Monti is now the Manager of Coordinated Supports in our AfterCare program. She works with AfterCare members either by phone or when they come by Mercy Home for drop-in hours, as well as providing additional support when it is needed.
She also meets with kids who are currently at Mercy Home but are getting ready to transition. She uses that period to meet with both the young person planning to move and out and their family to prepare for the transition.
“I’m grateful to be here,” she said. “I recognize that Mercy Home has done a lot of work for most of these members, and they’re still doing it and recognizing that trauma is something that does not go away just because you reside in a program, or because you live [at Mercy Home] for eight years. And we have these continuums of care because trauma is something that you’re always have to chisel at, to peel it back.”
And when Monti looks back on nearly three decades with Mercy Home, she is proud of the support that we provide children who desperately need it.
“If I’d done nothing but walk behind these kids just to make sure no more trauma was set on their shoulders, I would feel good,” she said.
Monti is truly a shining example of what it means to be a Mercy Home coworker, and we are incredibly grateful for them many years of service to our boys and girls.