Transforming Lives – Two Weeks at a Time

May 17, 2021

Sonya Smith’s goal – helping people transform their lives – is lofty by any standard, but especially when you consider she usually only interacts with these people for less than two weeks at a time.

Sonya (pictured left) is the new director of The Salvation Army’s Shield of Hope emergency homeless assessment and rapid-response center. When families in crisis call 311, the City’s social services emergency line, seeking shelter, Shield of Hope staff members find them a more stable living situation within 14 days. During that time, while staying in one of the rooms at the Shield of Hope facility in the City’s West Humboldt Park neighborhood, these clients receive case management, support services, and their new number-one cheerleader: Sonya.

“I want people to win,” she said. “I tell them failures are only the set-up for them to succeed.” Sonya should know. Once a fatherless child and then an abused wife, she was told she was “never going to be nothing’.” She’s now a best-selling author, motivational speaker, mentor, and minister who’s transforming lives two weeks at a time.

A Change Agent

Sonya will long remember “Jenni,” a 21-year-old client who came to Shield of Hope with the boyfriend she met at another shelter. Each had a daughter with them. Sonya sensed something wasn’t right in the relationship, so she wasn’t surprised when Jenni asked to speak to her alone and shared concerns about the way her boyfriend treated her and her daughter.

In talking with Jenni, Sonya discovered that in addition to the issues with her boyfriend, her mom was an addict, she’d grown up mostly in foster care, and she’s a diabetic who hadn’t had any insulin for a few months. As Sonya worked to address Jenni’s physical needs, she also encouraged the young woman. “I told her ‘You don’t have to be a product of where you came from. You can be a change agent in your own life and for your daughter,’” Sonya said.

The domestic violence cases – and they get a lot of them through their doors – really tug on Sonya’s heart, as a survivor herself. She says, “the Lord redeemed my situation,” and she prayed for an opportunity to help other women facing the same struggle. “They need to know somebody is there for them, to be reassured it’s going to be okay.”

Like all Shield of Hope clients, “Jenni” was placed into a shelter and given a list of the resources available to her to help her succeed. Sonya says she still prays for her, hoping the young woman is finding the stability and safety she said are her ultimate dream.   

A Place of Trauma

Like Jenni, many of the clients the Shield of Hope staff sees are coming from a place of trauma – domestic violence, untreated mental illness, a sudden job loss, a pandemic, and a lack of life skills. Sonya said a common misconception about individuals struggling with homelessness is that they got themselves into the situation, that it’s what they want. “But anybody can be a paycheck – or a fire or medical issue – away from homelessness,” she said.

Currently more than half the clients at Shield of Hope are there due to factors related to COVID-19. Sonya and her team expect this to rise when the moratorium on evictions ends in the coming weeks. “We’re bracing for it,” Sonya said. “We’re open 24 hours and won’t close our doors on anyone. We have an incredible staff that serves with their heart and they love what they do.”

“We only get them [clients] for a short time. Whatever needs they have, we take care of them to the best of our ability,” she said. Throughout their stay, Shield of Hope clients get one-on-one case management as well as access to job training, pastoral counseling, recreational and educational programs for the entire family, a referral for substance-abuse treatment, and the unflagging support of Sonya and her team.

While Sonya admits the work is difficult and emotionally draining, she said she wouldn’t trade what she does for anything. “Resetting and transforming lives does something to my soul.” She said she loves it when a client comes back and says, “Miss Sonya, I got a job!” or “Miss Sonya, I got accepted into school.” After years of turmoil and then serving others, she’s thrilled the Shield of Hope doors opened for her – and that she gets to open them for so many others in need of the same redemption she experienced.

“We get to love people for a living!” she said. “That’s The Salvation Army.”

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