A single mother in Chicago — alone and suffering from a traumatic past — Nina thought placing her three children for adoption was her only option. Then she heard about Holt-Sunny Ridge, and their new program to empower single moms in Chicago. 

The breaking point.

This is where Nina says she was right after her third child was born. A single mother of three living in Chicago, she was alone with no family or friends for support. Anxious, depressed and unable to work, she considered doing the one thing that broke her heart the most.

Was it ever a possibility that your family wouldn’t be able to stay together? That you’d place your kids for adoption? Sitting in Nina’s top-floor apartment on a warm day in August, we ask her this question.  

“Yeah,” Nina says.

Today, just six months later, she holds her Gemir, a beautiful baby boy with light brown skin and striking blue-gray eyes, on her lap. His older siblings, Gemarion and Geniah — 10 and 6  years old — play quietly in the back room.

The story of how she got to where she was, and to where she is now, is hard. Some parts even shocking. But themes resonate throughout her story — themes that transcend the hard parts. They are themes of resilience, strength, and an unwavering commitment to creating a better life for her children.

Nina’s Story

Nina was born on the west side of Chicago 28 years ago. During the delivery, her mother passed away from an aneurism. Nina was raised by her grandmother until she turned 15, when her grandmother passed away as well.

“After I lost my granny, I kind of lost myself a bit,” Nina says. “I was basically doing the typical things teenagers do when they don’t got no guidance.”

But towards the end of high school, she wanted to do the right thing. She wanted to get back on track. And her biggest motivation? Becoming a mother to her first son, Gemarion.

A single parent, on her own, Nina nevertheless managed to finish high school, start studying business management, and hold a job. She even started her own business.

The vision for her business hit her as she planned for Gemarion’s first birthday party.

“Kids love this stuff,” she remembers thinking, as the entire neighborhood of kids flocked to her front porch, enthralled by Elmo — or rather, her friend dressed up in the Elmo costume Nina rented.

It started small, but her business soon grew to party planning and full head-to-toe costumes for characters like Mickey Mouse, Elmo and Elsa.

Nina and Geniah put on two of the Minnie Mouse costumes.
Nina and Geniah put on two of the Minnie Mouse costumes that Nina uses for her business.

Geniah playing with the Minnie Mouse costume.

Business was going well. But then Nina got pregnant with her second child, a daughter named Geniah. Nina knew she had to push herself more than ever. On her own, she had to provide for them.

In the years that followed, Nina struggled as a single parent of two, but she got by. She worked multiple jobs in addition to the party planning business. But overwhelmed by work and raising two children, she dropped out of college.

DURING THIS TIME IN HER LIFE, SOMETHING ALSO KEPT HAPPENING TO NINA — SOMETHING THAT MADE EVERYTHING SEEM IMPOSSIBLE AND OVERWHELMING.

Violence in Chicago, and Trauma That Follows

Living in inner city Chicago, Nina experienced terrible violence. When she was 16 or 17, she was shot in the leg while sitting in a parked car in her neighborhood. Another time, while she was working as a security guard at the local aid office, her phone became flooded with texts — her brother had been shot and killed. And then again, just two years ago, Nina’s cousin — who was more like a brother to her — was shot and killed right on her front porch.

Nina was inside the house with her children, cooking breakfast, when it happened.

“Like the average mom,” she says, “I have a drill. Being in the city, you have to be prepared for stuff like this. So I hollered ‘gun drill’ and my kids hit the floor.”

As they had practiced, they then reached out to grab each other’s wrists and ankles so Nina could pull them all together into the back bedroom, under the bed. After making sure her kids were safe, when the shots subsided, she ran to the back patio where her brother breathed his last.

For Nina, that was it. She didn’t know how, but she knew she had to leave.

 

A neighborhood in inner-city Chicago.
A neighborhood in inner-city Chicago.

 

“I was like, I gotta’ get out of here,” she says. “There’s got to be a better place. So I never stopped praying, I never gave up.” But her business — her livelihood — thrived in the neighborhood where she lived.

“But I had to stop because of violence. There’s too much over there,” she says. “It’s not worth it to me. Your life, or money? Which are you going to choose? That’s how I look at it.”

So she relocated to an apartment building in a nearby suburb. Here, several four-story brick apartment buildings sit on a quiet street — certainly quieter than downtown Chicago, certainly safer.

Here, Nina had her third child, Gemir, who today is just 3 months old. When she gave birth at the hospital, she had no one — no family or friends to be with her. Although she no longer had to fear for her or her children’s lives, in some ways, things got even more difficult once she brought him home.

Between trauma from the gun violence she experienced and postpartum depression, she could barely get up to take care of her kids each day. She couldn’t hold a job. She couldn’t even afford formula for Gemir.

IT WAS AT THIS POINT, IN TOTAL DESPERATION, THAT SHE WONDERED IF RELINQUISHING HER PARENTAL RIGHTS AND PLACING HER CHILDREN WITH AN ADOPTIVE FAMILY WAS HER ONLY OPTION.

 

“Those emotions grew, and they became out of control,” Nina says. “But then I realized, [the kids] need me, and I need me! If I’m not here, who will take care of the kids?” Reality set in. Here, at her lowest point, she began reaching out, asking for help. It was then that she reached out to Holt-Sunny Ridge.

“I was on the verge of giving up,” Nina says. “I needed somebody to put me back together so I could take care of my family.”

Healing Through Empowering Women, Strengthening Families

In 2018, Holt-Sunny Ridge began the Empowering Women, Strengthening Families (EWSF) program. The program was created for women just like Nina, mothers who are considering placing their children for adoption, but only because they don’t have the resources to parent. The vision is to empower single moms in Chicago to successfully and independently care for their children.

Right away, Nina got in contact with Loann Tan, who works directly with the 25 moms in the EWSF program. The program is centered around making goals, and working together to reach them. It has required a lot of hard work, but today, just a few months later, Nina is in a completely different place.

Through counseling and medication, she is overcoming her anxiety and depression. She enrolled her children in school and daycare, follows a strict financial budget, cooks more food at home to save money, and she found resources for backpacks and school supplies for Gemarion and Geniah. She has a long-term plan for her family, and in just two weeks, she’ll go back to school to finish her degree in business administration.

Today, she is equipped, and empowered for the future.

“[Holt-Sunny Ridge] helped me to become a better parent — really,” Nina says. “If I would have given up my kids before I met them, I would have really regretted it.” She says that through EWSF she learned to focus on her “inner self,” and only through getting to the root of her hardship, and working through it, could she be the best parent possible for her kids. And this is what she will take with her.

Nina and her family.
Today, Nina feels hopeful about the future.

 

“I learned that I’m not weak. I learned that I can conquer anything I want,” Nina says.

She knows that this strength will influence her children, now and into the future. “I want them to be their own boss. I want them to grow. I want them to go after their dreams,” she says.

As Nina prepares to graduate from the EWSF program in a month, she is proud. You can see it on her face as she shares her story, and shares about dreams for the future. And the trajectory she’s on now? She wants her kids to follow the same path.

“My goal for my kids,” she says, “is for them to be where I am right now.”

 

Learn more about the Empowering Women, Strengthening Families program in Chicago! 

The Empowering Women, Strengthening Families program is made possible by a generous gift from Wayne and Nan Kocourek. The Kocoureks want to help raise awareness about the need to empower women who wish to raise their children and they encourage others to join in supporting them as well.