Woman on a Mission: Helping Others

JaShawn Hill’s fall, from having fun at a Big 10 university to being homeless and cut off from her family, came fast. Her rung-by-rung recovery and revival took longer.

But JaShawn’s determination has made her more than a simple story of redemption. She’s a sterling example of the ripple effect that emanates from social enterprises when successful participants later devote their personal or professional lives to helping others whose despair they know so well.

Social enterprises are mission-driven businesses that hire and provide support to people striving to overcome serious employment barriers, such as homelessness, incarceration, mental health challenges, substance abuse, and limited education. These enterprises provide a real, paying job and specialized services that help employees stabilize their lives, build skills, and develop a work history. Laying the ground for success.

JaShawn’s crucial lift came from Cara, a Chicago-based social enterprise. Cara (Gaelic for “friend”) is among the organizations supported by REDF and making a difference in so many lives. REDF has been investing in these mission-driven, revenue-generating businesses for over 20 years. In fact, growing these businesses is its sole focus. The broader impact is in lives transformed, as people find not just work but hope, pride, belonging, and self-sufficiency.

Looking back over her life, JaShawn says she rejected good advice at first but later embraced it, even when it sounded odd. The initial advice: study hard in college and attend classes. No way, JaShawn recalls. “After going to an all-girl Catholic school, I decided I was going to have fun rather than go to class.”

She left the University of Iowa after three years and brought her hard-partying ways back to her Chicago-area home. Her mother, with four younger children to care for, wouldn’t tolerate her daughter’s alcohol and substance abuse. “She refused to let me be a bad example to my siblings,” JaShawn says.

Before long she was homeless and struggling with addiction, bad relationships, and violence in rough surroundings. “I felt hopeless and thought, ‘if I die, everyone would be better off.’ I remember praying and asking for help.” Eventually, her mother and grandmother agreed to give her one more chance at rehabilitation.

She went to Sister House, a women’s shelter run by nuns. “I said I would never go where nuns were!” JaShawn says with her infectious laugh. “But when you’re at a crossroads and desperate, sometimes you have to eat crow.”

From Sister House she went to Cara, where support staff helped her get on a budget, pay off her student debt, and eventually return to college to finish her bachelor’s degree and earn a master’s in social work. JaShawn worked for Cara’s social enterprise, CleanSlate, a community beautification company. It provided her a paying job, a range of soft and hard skills training, and the best career advice she’s ever heard (and which she always shares with others): if you’re assigned to sweep the street, then “sweep the street like you’re making a million dollars.”

The advice sounded off-key at first, she says. After all, she had grown up in a middle-class home and had three years of college. Why should she be sweeping streets, let alone acting as though she was receiving a fortune to do it? “But I decided to try it,” she says, “because you never know who’s watching.”

Sure enough, someone did see her cleaning a street like she was making a million dollars, and offered her a part-time receptionist job at Cabrini Green Legal Aid. Over three short years she moved up to full-time office manager and then client support specialist.

JaShawn says she constantly relies on Cara mantras, including “embrace that I am worthy.” That was essential at the legal aid office, she says, where clients with criminal records “didn’t feel worthy of goodness, of good results.” She told them of her own brushes with the criminal justice system and encouraged them to believe in their worthiness and tell their story. “Because they do have a story,” she says. “They don’t feel like their story is worth being told, but they can be transformed.”

A city of Chicago official offered her a job as a family support specialist. Later someone asked if she’d like to manage a youth program for the city. “I said ‘Absolutely!’” Today, she is a Youth Program Manager for Chicago Survivors, an organization that provides support services to surviving family members of Chicago homicide victims. Each new job, she says, was another step in her mission to help others, just as people had once helped her. That goal, she says, is “part of my fabric, my being.”

“The greatest gift is to find that purpose,” JaShawn says. “Each morning I ask, how can I best serve the people I’m going to see today? I want to be useful, regardless of whether they recognize it. That’s why I show up, to be a gift to them when they feel like they have been robbed of so much – their youth, their imagination, their innocence.”

Today JaShawn is married with two sons, ages 3 and 5, and she’s stepmom to a third child from her husband’s previous relationship.

She implores schools, communities, and organizations to help young people in or on the verge of trouble. “It’s our job as a village to stimulate them so they don’t burn down the village,” she says. “Let’s invest in them and help them find the best pathways to purpose.”

“Don’t give up on them, like Cara didn’t give up on me,” JaShawn says with a passion that brings her close to tears. “I promise you I wouldn’t be the human being I am today if not for Cara.”