When Jessie Rowlett came to Outreach’s Transitional Housing program, she needed so much more than a roof over her head. She needed chances. She needed family.
Jessie’s parents divorced when she was six, and her mom and stepdad spent most of Jessie’s growing-up years abusing drugs. Jessie tells a story that typifies her growing-up years. One Thanksgiving, she and her sister worked for hours on prepping and cooking their family’s Thanksgiving dinner. The only thing they needed their parents to do was to check the turkey. Jessie says, “They wouldn’t come out of their bedroom because they were getting high. We knocked and knocked on their door, and eventually started to cry, but they still wouldn’t come out.” She adds, “Eventually they did come out–to eat the food!”
Due to circumstances like these, Jessie moved out when she was 14. She was on her own for most of her high school years–she lived at a neighbor’s house for a year, tried moving back home for a year, then moved from neighbor’s house to friend’s house to friend’s house. At the end of her junior year, she was running out of options, and through a school social worker and Wheaton Youth Outreach Case Manager Sandy Oyler, Jessie agreed to live in Outreach’s community living facility in which 5-6 girls live with houseparents overseeing their care.
While Jessie was thankful to have stable housing, the move didn’t come without fear and trepidation. “The thought of moving in was terrifying!” she says. “I was going to live with tons of people I didn’t know, completely on my own. After I unpacked all my things, I cried.”
But it wasn’t long before she eased in and felt comfortable. Jessie started her senior year of high school the day after she moved in, and a surprise gift really made a difference. “Sarah, the houseparent, bought me notebooks for school. It seems like a small thing, but that was really big,” she says. “No one had ever done that kind of thing for me. It really made me feel welcomed.”
Jessie benefitted from a caring environment, and also picked up some life skills along the way. Gail Hoffman, Wheaton Youth Outreach clinical director, talks about the transitional housing program. “Sandy (Oyler) sits down with each new girl and creates an individual treatment plan. It’s really personal. We set goals and target dates for things like spiritual life, finances, interpersonal relationships, academics, and job training.” The priority for Jessie was applying for colleges and financial aid—especially difficult tasks because Jessie had to prove she was an independent, and there were problems getting all the papers she needed from her mom. In addition to that stress, her stepdad passed away around that time.
“It was a big year,” Gail continues. “Not only was it her busy senior year, but there was a lot of family turmoil, even though she was living with us. But Sandy and Sarah walked beside her the entire time.”
It was also around that time that Jessie came to faith. “At first I thought it was kind of creepy that the houseparents and girls always prayed together and talked about Jesus,” Jessie admits. “But after I got out of the hospital (I went to the hospital for depression when my stepdad died), I started wanting to go to church and worship God. That was a breakthrough.” Jessie has since enjoyed praying together at community meals and talking about God with her houseparents and housemates. She credits her houseparents with her spiritual growth. “They don’t hesitate to talk about God, ever. They encourage us simply by how they live—they’re always in the Word, and they live it,” she says. “I’ve never met anyone like that.”
Thanks to Outreach, Jessie successfully graduated the program and moved on to new opportunities. After graduating high school in 2009, Jessie attended College of DuPage and transferred to Wheaton College, graduating in 2013. Since that time, she’s taught elementary education at Christian schools.
Jessie credits Outreach for making the difference in her life. “If I hadn’t found Outreach, I can’t imagine where I’d be today,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t have gone to college. I’d be without God, I’d be without family.
“Outreach has given me too much to name,” Jessie continues. “It’s given me chances I never would’ve had otherwise. It’d helped me to rise above the circumstances that were put in my way my entire life–circumstances I never thought that I could overcome. But I did overcome them because of this place, because of these people.”