Zeni’s story is a journey about healing and finding the resiliency to move forward in the wake of unspeakable tragedy.
However, Zeni’s story is far from finished. In fact, her story includes a new feel-good chapter, proving that hard work, determination, and courage are eventually rewarded.
Zeni was recently accepted into the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Initially, she was awarded a $5,000 scholarship. But upon hearing her remarkable story, the university granted her an additional $35,000 for the year. She is currently slated to earn her Master of Social Work degree next June.
Zeni recently spoke at the 2018 Leader Council’s Graduate Luncheon where she introduced keynote speaker Anne Pramaggiore, Senior Vice President and CEO at Exelon.
Zeni expressed words of gratitude to the Leader Council and all the supporters of Mercy Home for motivating her to make a difference in people’s lives.
“After graduation, I plan to work in the healthcare system, supporting families through their difficult times, giving them the power to realize their hopes and dreams,” she said.
The rising tide of violence in Chicago neighborhoods continues to take its toll on hardworking families and innocent bystanders. Even within the safe shelter of Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, our kids are not immune to the reach of community violence.
Zeni, a former Walsh Campus resident now in our AfterCare program, came to Mercy Home to escape the gang turf wars and drive-by shootings of her Little Village neighborhood, where she was in fear of getting caught in the crossfire. Simply walking to school was a traumatic experience, full of worry and dread.
Fortunately, she had an ideal protector: her selfless, patient, and kind older brother, Moises. Anytime Zeni left the house, Moises was by her side. Together, they were a pair. He always had her back.
But Moises couldn’t protect Zeni from the harsh realities of home life. Though her mother worked three jobs to provide for her family, times were tough. Each day was a new struggle. Zeni needed a safe haven where she could concentrate on the fundamentals of taking care herself. With her mother’s blessing, she moved into Mercy Home.
Emboldened with newfound focus and support, Zeni took charge of her life and made strides at Northeastern Illinois University. Then tragedy struck. Her brother Moises was shot and killed while standing on the street talking to a friend. Though he steered clear of gangs and lived a generous, productive life, Moises couldn’t avoid the turmoil of his surroundings.
This narrative has become all too common for boys and girls at Mercy Home. Increasingly, children are victimized not by a parent or caretaker, but by their environment.
For many kids like Zeni, recovering from trauma is an ongoing battle. Yet with the love and support of Mercy Home’s network of care, the healing process is full of strength, resolve, and resilient outcomes.
We encourage you to watch Zeni’s video and listen to her story. Witness for yourself how Mercy Home has inspired her to honor her brother’s legacy and our mission by helping young people in need, just like her.
Zeni’s Story: Video Transcript
Jim Williams: Even as young children Zeni Gonzalez and her older brother Moises had no sibling rivalry. They were best friends.
Zeni Gonzalez: My brother was selfless, he was patient, he was kind. He was the ideal older brother.
Jim Williams: And he was her partner in surviving the often violent Little Village neighborhood in Chicago.
Zeni Gonzalez: We knew that we always had to stay in a pair. My grandma always told us, “If you go out he has to go out with you because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Jim Williams: Gangs fighting over drug turf, frequent drive-by shootings, terrifying Zeni as she simply tried to walk to school.
Zeni Gonzalez: I feared that, at any point, something could happen to me. Just scared of one day of not seeing the next day.
Fr. Scott D.: Because of the fear of even walking outside, because of the fear of gangs, she was traumatized.
Jim Williams: Zeni’s mother was loving and devoted to her children. She worked three jobs, but with rent and utilities it was a struggle to put food on the table.
Zeni Gonzalez: There was times when we didn’t have food in the fridge. We didn’t have anything in the pantry.
Jim Williams: The working poor we call these families. Despite their hard work many are trapped in poverty and dangerous neighborhoods. Zeni needed to be safe. A friend named Alan told her he was living at the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls.
Zeni Gonzalez: The Alan that I knew in high school was nothing compared to the Alan that I knew that was living here at Mercy. He said, “Mercy Home changed my life.”
Jim Williams: That’s how Zeni found what we call a port in the storm. With her mother’s blessing she moved in as she attended North Eastern University.
Zeni Gonzalez: Mercy Home provided me the fundamentals that I didn’t learn at home. How to take care of myself mentally, how to take care of myself as a woman and how to be financially steady for myself. And that’s something that I never learned.
Jim Williams: Meantime her brother Moises was living a productive and generous life. He volunteered to rebuild houses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, then became a manager at an oil change shop. One night in November 2016 he was talking with two friends on the street.
Zeni Gonzalez: When a man in a black hoodie approached them and shot at them.
Jim Williams: Moises Gonzalez who had steered clear of the gangs, worked hard, loved his family, was dead at 25.
Zeni Gonzalez: All I can do was grab my mom, because at that moment she just fell, and she was hitting the chair, and she was hitting the wall. And all I can think of was, what am I going to do without my brother? What are we going to do without my brother? That was the only thing that kept running through my head was, what is my life without my brother? What is my mom’s life without my brother?
Jim Williams: She was embraced and consoled by The Mercy Home for Boys and Girls.
Fr. Scott D.: To help her through the grieving period, to plan for the funeral, and to continue to wrap their arms around this woman who experienced tremendous loss.
Zeni Gonzalez: I felt like I need a comfort. I needed to be in a place where I knew that I could cry and I knew I could let go and I knew it was Mercy.
Jim Williams: Today Zeni is a college graduate working on her Master’s degree in social work. She wants to go back to Little Village to help young people living in fear, honoring the memory of her big brother.
Zeni Gonzalez: I want to pay it forward and I want to help as many youths, as many kids that I can, just how Mercy Home helped me. And I will always thank Mercy Home for that.
Jim Williams: And we thank you, our generous benefactors, giving young people like Zeni Gonzalez a fighting chance.
Fr. Scott D.: You are the angels. The messengers of God’s mercy to the young people entrusted to our care and for that, I am deeply grateful.