Laverne Ballard, Author
A native of Newark, NJ, Laverne returned to the Garden State, where she was born, in the 1993 to start a new life. While working for Superior Court judge in Newark, she enrolled in Essex County College in Newark - but not before taking the GED twice. It was the summer of 2002 while taking a freshman writing class she first realized she was ready to confront her past head on. In response to a writing assignment, “What was the most pivotal moment in your life?” she turned in 15 pages about her experience being homeless in the ’80s and ’90s. That exercise gave her the impetus to begin writing a book-length memoir. She first shared her chilling narrative in the September 2006 issue of Essence Magazine.
In 2004, Laverne earned a Bachelor’s degree in political science at Bloomfield College, NJ -attending school at nights and weekend, working a full time as an executive assistant for an assemblymen and mayor, and managing a family. Laverne’s made the Dean’s List and was recognized with school’s “Non-Traditional Student Award” during her senior year.
Laverne’s book God Bless the Child, published in September 2009, tells the story of being a young child and of homelessness, of mental illness and looking for a place to call home.
She currently lives in between New Jersey and Georgia with her husband and four children. Her experience has led her to do extensive volunteer work with children’s programs such the Head Start Policy Council. Laverne continues to inspire people by lending her voice to the cause of homelessness and mental illness and offering solutions.
The first thing I noticed about Laverne Ballard is her very quiet strength and her resolve that she can weather any storm. Her experience of growing up homeless and in the care of a mentally ill mother has revealed to her an ugly side of life but ins spite of it all she has emerged as beautiful, thoughtful, compassionate and wise.
DR: Tell me about your book.
LB: It’s a memoir. The title is God Bless the Child. It details my life between the ages of ten and twenty five and I share what it was like being homeless with my mother, who was mentally ill, and my sister. I share about how my mother led us on a turbulent, erratic, homeless journey that took us from a two bedroom apartment in Newark, NJ across the United States.
From the age of ten until I was emancipated at age seventeen, I lived in thirty two cities in twenty three states and in over two hundred homeless shelters.
DR: Wow. You wield the word “emancipated” as if it is representative of something that was not easy for you: as if you have earned the right to use it.
LB: Once you are in the system, you are packaged together and the system deals with the most urgent needs. Needing a home is the most urgent and things like mental illness, drug abuse, mismanagement of funds or whatever it was that caused a family to be homeless, do not really get dealt with as a priority. So emancipation for me means the ability to break a vicious cycle and come from out of a circle of beliefs and behaviors, to be on my own and free standing as an adult divorced from that system.
DR: What was it like for you as a kid to grow up homeless, moving from state to state?
About Laverne Ballard
Sometimes the hell we live in is hidden in plain sight. For six years my mother, whose mental illness was never properly diagnosed, led me and my sister on a turbulent, erratic journey from an apartment in the projects to horrific public shelters to cold alleyways on the streets. As a homeless family, it was as if we were invisible, neglected by a system that turned a blind eye to us, overlooked by many of the strangers who hurried past us. From the age of ten until I was “emancipated” at seventeen, my “normal” was a nomadic existence, as we crisscrossed the country, searching for a place to call home in a total of 32 cities in 23 states—everywhere from Newark, New Jersey to Dallas, Texas, to Madison, Wisconsin. Instead of finding a new life, in each place we found a new ghetto, a new shelter, another level of poverty. In all, we slept in over 200 shelters during those chaotic years.
God Bless the Child is my chronicle of finding faith when the deck seemed stacked against me, and rising up from the lowest rung of hell to become a responsible member of society, up until recently working in the mayor’s office, and currently attending graduate school at Rutgers to earn my Master’s in public administration. Most of all, this is a true and revealing account of how a person can break the most toxic of family cycles. As the proud mother of three children, I am determined that they will know a very life than the one I had to endure.
For more about Laverne Ballard, visit her website.
LB: It was tumultuous.
We were on a constant schedule that started at 6:30 am and went until about 8:30 pm. We did not have your own time or our own sense of freedom and my mother’s authority to supervise us was taken away. In that setting it’s more or less about how to manage the family and try to get them housing. It is not about families being a family.
DR: Is there a memory that stands out for you?
LB: I remember that our bags were always searched. I remember being treated more like a criminal than anything else.
I remember when I was fourteen and in the ninth grade…
I don’t remember what state we were in but I recall that in order for a parent to get cash benefits or any type of assistance, their children had to be enrolled in school. So we were enrolled.
I was sitting in class and the teacher asked me to read. I stumbled over every single word. It was so bad and it was to my surprise. I can remember that I was in Brooklyn and I remember being shocked. Mentally it tore me down. Whatever had been happening to me was internalized up to that point but the pain kicked in for me on that day.
I never went back to that school because I was so ashamed.
DR: What states have you lived in?
LB: New York – the five boroughs and Yonkers, Jersey City, Chicago, Texas, Florida, Connecticut and Wisconsin…we never explored the Deep South though…
DR: How was it that you ended up in all of those places?
LB: My mother used traveler’s aid to move us around when it was actually intended for people to go back home. We would just get off the bus sporadically and never complete our trip to “go home”.
DR: Then what would you do once you got off the bus?
LB: She would look for a shelter or if we had the money we would stay in a hotel for a day or two. It was always the assumption that we would “get off the bus in order to get re-established”.
We were always starting over from scratch – literally. We had nothing but the clothes on our backs. We would get off the bus, get re-established, get on welfare, go to school for maybe one or two days until she got her check and then move on to another state until she became mentally unstable again by something or someone that made her feel threatened. That would cause us to move to another state again.
DR: So it was just you, your mom and your sister?
LB: My sister and I are seven years apart and when I left my mother my sister stayed with her for seven more years and she ultimately had to be convinced that she could not save my mother. Our love could not save my mother.
DR: As you are talking I am struck by the way that people are always telling me that they wouldn’t change anything about their lives. Can you say that?
LB: No. I would have gotten my mother some help. Being a ward of the state, for us, would have been better.
I try not to live in yesterday but I regret never having a childhood. If I had to do it all over again, if I were God, I would make it so that I would be able to go home after school.
I always just wanted to go home after school…
I sometimes regret having a child at such an early age. I could not become emancipated because my mother would not go through the court process and so I had to have a child at a very early age to get that…
DR: So once you had a child you could establish your own independence?
I look at my life and I am thankful for it but I don’t think a child should have to endure so much at such a young age. What happened to me fundamentally changed my perception of life.
DR: What do you mean?
LB: I think that people think of family as people who will always be there and that is not always true. And my education - being in that lifestyle you forget how to be human. My reading skills died. I was virtually illiterate. Just having to be an adult before I became emancipated is something I would change.
DR: So then, on the heels of all that, how has this whole experience informed who you are now?
LB: I am a conscientious person. I am very stern. My children have the best education and they have exposure. I strive for better and higher educational goals and living standards. I have a real desire to live and I appreciate little things.
I am always striving to press beyond my circumstances to become much more than nothing because I see myself as becoming from nothing.
DR: How has this experience allowed you to contribute to other people?
LB: There is a huge part of me that is an advocate. I not only share my story but I volunteer and I have my children volunteer.
You can go through life living without ever touching a soul but if you can touch one person’s life and cause them to see a better day then God will conclude that you have fulfilled your purpose.
DR: When people look at you what do you want them to see?
LB: Triumph, inspiration and overcoming.
It’s easy to be where you are without moving forward. It’s difficult to press on and to propel the human spirit beyond and to not become your bleeding testimony.
DR: How do people do that?
LB: You accept whatever the ugliness is. You accept the grim reality of it and then you start to cope. You have to cope. You have to find some mechanism that allows you to live and start healing so that you can eventually say “That was my past but I do have a future.”
I am a lot stronger than I thought I was.
I did not think that I could make it off the streets. I didn’t think I would make it to thirty.
DR: And now that you’ve made it past thirty, what do you want for yourself?
LB: Now? I want to pursue what I should have always pursued – writing. I have created structure. I bought a house. I have a college education and my kids. I have completed myself in certain ways and now I want to pursue my passion.
I don’t think my progress in life has been impeded but I always felt inadequate.
DR: What do you tell yourself in order to deal with the anger or resentment that you still have about what happened?
LB: My anger and resentment has been my fire and the thing that has pushed me or fueled my drive and ambition.
DR: During the really tough moments when you had to struggle to even hope, how did you get through those days?
LB: “One day at a time Lord”.
You can not take on more than you can bear. Sometimes it was just a moment or a second. When you have the cold ravaging your body you just try to get to that next block.
I have learned to pace myself. Sometimes you have to do just what you can do. Sometimes you just have to go to sleep because you can’t handle it and then you just wake up realizing that you have to move forward.
DR: What do you hope that people will get out of reading God Bless the Child?
LB: I hope that people will realize that we have a serious homeless problem and I want people to realize that children who are homeless are never spoken to or addressed. Children have feelings and they have voices.
I want people to walk away feeling like it is possible to overcome and that we all have personal resilience and an inner strength that we don’t tap into until we are in our darkest moment. And, that in tapping into that strength, you will become a greater human being.
DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
LB: As someone who can inspire someone to look beyond their circumstances. As someone who had the courage to share her story no matter how painful it was…
God Bless the Child
God Bless the Child is the painful yet moving account of growing up in shelters from coast to coast and finding the personal resiliency and inner strength to rise above adversity. I will draw back the curtain to reveal the reality of homelessness and its effects that can only be lived in this firsthand account.