Ramona, a Memory Bridge student-buddy, is a beautiful 14-year-old with a serene smile and eyelashes that curl. In the past nine years she has lived in eight different places. Currently she and her mother are staying in a homeless shelter on Chicago’s north side with about 30 other woman and children. They all stay together in one big room. They’ve been there since January – five months – since God let her mother know that he wanted her to leave Texas and move to Chicago. God’s instructions are the impetus for most of their moves. Her mother has to get up at 3 a.m. and leave the shelter by 4 a.m. to take a bus and two trains to her job as a school bus driver in the suburbs. She is saving for a house or apartment closer to her job, which means that Ramona will need to switch schools once more.
She says that as a single mom her mother often is too busy to spend much time with her, and that other kids have always teased her – for her accent (or lack thereof), for her deep faith in God, for the birthmark on her forehead. “They say, ‘mark of Buddha, mark of Buddha,’ which is actually pretty stupid, because if I was a Buddhist the mark would be much smaller,” she says.
Ramona spent a lot of her younger years feeling angry and sad about the way she was treated. She even thought about suicide once, but couldn’t go through with it when she remembered how her mother always said that she couldn’t live without her. She once wrote, “Bullies are murderers,” because, as she says, there is more than one way to kill someone, and bullies kill the spirit. But now she has found forgiveness. She thinks of Jesus on the cross saying, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and knows that this is true of the people who have bullied and teased her.
One night, another child at the shelter, a 10-year-old boy, got so angry at his mother for not giving him some money, he took her Bic lighter and set fire to his bed. His was the top bunk, and pretty soon the fire had spread around the room so that it became a big ring of fire around the top bunks. The police took away the boy, and the mother was asked not to return to the shelter. “Can you imagine?” Ramona asks. “Having that much anger in you at 10 years old? All we can do is pray for him.”
Ramona’s Memory Bridge buddy, Sunshine, smiles all the time, so it can be hard to know what she’s really feeling. But Ramona can tell that Sunshine does not want to reminisce about her husband. “When you bring up a subject several times, and each time the person doesn’t respond, then you know that is something they don’t want to talk about,” she observes.
Why does she volunteer for Memory Bridge? “I’ve spent so much of my life feeling isolated and not having anyone to talk to, I figure if I can help someone else feel less lonely, then that would be a good thing,” she says.