NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — There is a sense of stillness, of serenity, in the painting suspended on Alishia Marshall’s office wall.
The subject’s head is bowed, her eyes closed. Rosary beads weave between her interlaced fingers as she reflects.
The symbolism resonates every time Marshall lifts her own dark eyes from the computer screen at her desk and looks out the window toward the residences on the other side of the street.
“Around here you have households in your hands,” says Marshall, property manager at J. Henry Hale Apartments. “You pray you make the right decision.”
Fifteen years ago, Marshall made a personal decision.
She moved with her infant son into Vine Hill Apartments, one of the more than a dozen family public housing properties run by the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency.
A single, working mother and college student, she set herself a hard path. She faced a few setbacks — being kicked out of a program designed to help get her on her feet, not getting several jobs for which she applied, and more. But she persisted, and now the former public housing resident helps manage properties like the one where she once lived — and helps her residents look beyond their location in life.
In 2000, Marshall worked full time as a Kroger accountant while studying criminal justice, psychology and accounting at Tennessee State University.
When she became pregnant, it probably would have been easier to move out of the college dorms and back home. But with a baby boy in her care, she sought independence.
“I wanted to feel like a mother,” she says.
So she enrolled in Christian Community Services Inc.’s Mentoring Towards Independence program. Housed in the Vine Hill Community Center, the program helps low-income families reduce their dependence on government subsidies through weekly financial courses on asset management and budgeting, a $2 to $1 match savings program of up to $5,000 and one-on-one mentorships.
While parents study, program staff members provide the residents’ children with homework tutoring, career exploration workshops and a course on basic money management. And they feed them dinner. In Marshall’s case, it was much-needed child care.
The program’s promise was opportunity, but it required commitment.
Imagine trying to balance school, a full-time job and a small son while also attending an additional night class with strict attendance demands. I can’t. What if your child gets sick, or it’s exam week, or there’s a work emergency? So many in our community — particularly the low-income single parents among us — struggle with these realities.
Accountability is key, yes. That’s why standards are set. And, yes, not everyone cares to live up to those standards. Some want handouts and an easy road to security (a road that doesn’t actually exist).
But even for those who try to do everything right, life is unpredictable and sometimes it presents an underhanded hurdle.
The balancing act proved too much for Marshall, and she was released from the program for missing too many classes.
The situation frustrated her.
“Basically removing me from the program taught me about rules and regulations,” she says, her manicured fingers pushing back her dark locks as she remembered her then still-maturing self. “There is no pass in life.”
But that truth didn’t deter her.
Instead, she continued working on the program objectives on her own. Pushed by Vine Hill’s social services coordinator, Delores Hockett, a woman whose job it was to support the residents’ long-term goals, Marshall set a household budget. She saved. And when she re-enrolled in the Mentoring Towards Independence program a year later, she was better prepared to achieve its goals.
Marshall began contributing to the match savings program and considering mortgage interest rates. She completed the program, earned two bachelor’s degrees and purchased a home for herself and her son in 2006 in Smyrna.
But she didn’t walk away from her former life, where her Vine Hill neighbors had become like family, calling her at work when she had a package on her porch and cooking out together.
Marshall returned to Vine Hill to serve on Christian Community Services’ board of directors and its finance committee for six years. Then a job opened at the housing authority.
She always thought she would retire at Kroger, but the demands (16 freezers go down and you are called in the middle of the night) weren’t appealing. So she applied for a leasing assistant position. She didn’t get it. Two years later a property manager position opened. She didn’t get that job either.
But still she pushed, and in 2007 she returned to the housing authority — not as a resident but as Cumberland View’s property manager. At the North Nashville property, she hosted parent-teacher meetings in the community room beside her office and was often asked to visit schools to talk to problem children. She helped residents secure business licenses to become a baker, an aesthetician, a restaurateur.
“Their goal was not to stay in public housing,” she says. “They were moving toward things.”
She knew what that felt like. So, she helped.
And now, as property manager at J. Henry Hale Apartments, she fulfills requests from residents in the 188 public housing units and 40 market rate units on the property.
She sets rental rates, helps with move-ins and and scurries around getting keys.
At her own home, she dotes on her now 15-year-old son, a junior at KIPP Academy who runs track and is in TSU’s Upward Bound program.
And in the occasional quiet moments, she sits in her office and looks up at the painting hanging between her windows.
“I am grateful,” she says. “I really am.”
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