As DarShee’ Clark reflects on her life, she acknowledges some regrets. Joining Circles RVA, however, is not one of them.
Today, 24.5% of Richmond residents live in poverty, a number that is more than double the national rate. Circles RVA is one of Circles USA’s 40+ chapters working to empower individuals and families to help them permanently move out of poverty and thrive by arming them with financial, emotional and social resources.
Clark is a Circle Leader, a designation she earned as a result of her own experience. Over the course of Circles RVA’s 18-month program, Clark was able to move out of poverty by creating an actionable life-plan and defining her goals. She was assisted by her two Allies, matches made by the organization as part of a support system available to individuals as they go through the program. Clark was part of Circle RVA’s first graduating cohort.
Clark spoke with us about life before Circles RVA, how achieving her goals transformed her and her family’s life and advice for future Circle Leaders like herself.
“People say everyone should get a second chance, but I often wondered what a second chance felt like.”
As a sophomore in high school, Clark was living with her child and mother in public housing. A few years later, she was in college when her son’s father was murdered. Following this incident, Clark battled severe depression and an addiction to heroin.
“You do things that you normally wouldn’t do when you are sober and clean, and I ended up doing something that caused me to become a convicted felon,” Clark said. “Little did I know, I would pay for that for the rest of my life. People say everyone should get a second chance, but I often wondered what a second chance felt like.”
At 22, Clark was out of jail. She completed probation with no infractions and paid off all of her fines. She was ready to start turning her life around. She re-enrolled in college, where she met a guy, fell in love and became pregnant with her second child. Once again, Clark had to drop out.
Eight years later, Clark had two more children, has remained clean and sober, obtained her driver’s license. Over the years, she has paid over $13,000 in fines for various infractions, and yet still has a balance of some $3,000.
Before Circles RVA, Clark was living in public housing with her kids. With just her high school diploma, she worked tirelessly, trying her best to figure out how to get out of her situation and improve her family’s prospects.
“Public housing is where I grew up, so I wanted something different for my children besides seeing people overdosing, fighting, shooting people and selling drugs,” Clark said.
A decade after getting out of jail, Clark would start her life-changing journey with Circles RVA.
“How much I’d give to see my kids running around playing SAFE in their own backyard.”
A teacher of Clark’s daughter was a volunteer at Circles RVA and knew how much Clark fought to get out of public housing and poverty. Clark heard the words, “The program will give you the tools you need to get out of poverty.” A week later, she was in Circles’ leadership training program.
“Not one person in the program judged me, even though I was a convicted felon and recovering addict,” Clark explained. “They all welcomed me as if I was a doctor, lawyer or counselor just like them. That was the best feeling I’ve ever felt! They became my family.”
Clark wanted to see her kids running around and playing safely in their backyard. That constant thought gave her the determination to push herself through the program. She met with budgeting teachers, attended parenting classes and other weekly training classes that provided her with invaluable resources.
“The biggest motivator for me to become a leader was happiness for my children,” Clark said.
Clark had weekly meetings with her Allies, Davis and Alice, on Tuesdays where they would sit down and eat dinner as a family. She also talked with them over the phone at least three times a week to make sure she remained on track with her goals.
“They made sure I was the LEADER in my journey and supported me the entire 18 months,” Clark said. “And they still do.”
Despite the strong support system, Clark faced external obstacles that made her consider giving up. She was turned down after applying for different housing due to the charges stemming from her past. Clark dealt with five different landlords taking money from her without any intention of renting to her due to her background. At one point, her car broke down, and she had to depend on someone else to take her and her kids to class and elsewhere.
Another challenge always seemed to be around the corner. Once, when her kids got sick, she stayed up all night taking care of them. The next day, she was so exhausted that she didn’t know if she had the energy to attend her Circles meeting. But Clark did. She fought through every single obstacle, completed the program, and accomplished all of her goals.
“Before Circles, ‘community’ meant ‘Fairfield Court Housing Projects.’ Now, ‘community’ means family – MY CIRCLES FAMILY.”
Clark focused on one goal at a time to accomplish her long-term goals. With the help of credit counselors from places like Capital One, and a year of work, Clark raised her credit score from 574 to 624. Her Allies also helped her figure out how to get her rights restored, a process that took over a year. With over 30 letters of recommendations from her Allies, her probation officer, the judge who sentenced her and even her children, Clark had her rights restored. Last November, Clark voted for the first time.
Clark also has returned to school for forensics and is a junior in college. She has lost over 30 pounds, saved enough money to get her old car fixed and buy a new truck and is in the process of getting her teeth fixed. She also has now paid off almost all of her fines. Clark is currently employed as a companion, where she is earning a steady income to support herself and her family.
Most importantly, Clark accomplished her biggest goal: She bought a house for her kids with a nice fenced-in yard and surveillance covering her entire property.
“It’s quiet and safe,” Clark said. “My kids are extremely safe and happy for the first time in our lives.”
Clark’s advice to other future Circle Leaders is to come into the program willing and ready to lead your own life.
“Don’t allow anyone to lead it for you,” Clark said. “Find out what it is that you want and go after it. Don’t stop til you get it. You don’t have to be a saint to get out of poverty. You just have to want it badly enough to never give up.”