Story 10 of 20: "Phenomenal Woman" by Jessica Madison

For our 10th story in our series of 20 stories, we are proud to share with you Jessica Madison’s powerful story of perseverance.

My family moved to Chicago in the middle of 8th grade year. I knew no one. I remember walking down the hall freshmen year, and this guy Joe who worked at Umoja screamed my name, “Come on in! We have activities. We have snacks.” And I went in. I met friends. Before that, I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t talk to anybody. I didn’t have a great family life. That’s why I was always at school. Umoja became my family.

I did college trips junior and senior year. No one in my family had done anything like that. I still remember Dre (from Umoja) told me “Just because no one else did it, doesn’t mean you can’t. We believe in you.” College isn’t the path I ended up taking at the time, but the experiences in Umoja opened up a new way of thinking about myself and what I could do. I remember Ilana (from Umoja) used to make us do mock interviews. Ilana used to tell me, “You don’t need it now, you’ll need it in the future.” I swear – to this day I still use those skills. She helped me think about my objectives, smile, make eye contact, turn weaknesses into strengths. 

IMG_0744_1.JPGI hated talking to people, thinking they don’t care what I think. But Ilana said, “do it.” Ilana and Dre taught me that my voice matters; taught me patience; taught me how not to accept one answer and not give up. Umoja taught me to be resourceful. If you want it, go get it. It’s okay if you fall down. You get back up again. I had my baby at 18. My mom kicked me out. When that happened, I remembered the poem we read in Umoja called “Phenomenal Woman.” I didn’t just sit on the curb and cry. I got up. I googled resources. I found shelter. I found a job. I got my own place. I ended up getting married. I got my CNA. I’m currently studying online and am very proud to say I will graduate next year with a degree in health and human services.

Even now, instead of just accepting an answer, I look for solutions. My son is epileptic. When he was a year-and-a-half old, he was having seizures, and no one believed me. Doctors would tell me nothing’s wrong. I kept taking him to the hospital. Then, I heard Ilana in my head saying “Keep trying,” and I’d ask myself, “What do I need? How do I get it? How will I know if I am successful?” I refused to take no for an answer. I found the resources. I talked to social workers. If one doctor wouldn’t listen, I’d find someone else. After two months of going back to the hospital every day and having everyone tell me I was wrong, finally, they sent me to Children’s Hospital of Milwaukee. Within 10 minutes, my son had a diagnosis and they started treating him for epilepsy.

If I didn’t have Umoja, I would have just accepted the first answer I got “he’s fine.” Because of Umoja, I learned to advocate for myself and for my son. My voice matters. Raising a son with a disability, I still use those skills all the time. I make sure the doctors hear me. I am not afraid to speak up and find the resources my son needs.

I know that I am a better mother and a stronger person because of Umoja. Words cannot express my gratitude.