Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. The one day of the year when most families sit down to a table full of food and answer the simple question, "What are you thankful for?"
For some in the community, though, thankfulness looks a lot different.
This time last year, Michelle Valentine wasn't living in her home with her children and spending time with people she cared about. Instead, she was staying in the Jefferson County Winter Shelter and spending her days in the cold looking for work.
"It was winter, and the only place I could go was under a bridge until someone told me about Miss Pat (Abernathy) and the homeless shelter," she said. "I came here and she welcomed me with open arms."
At that season in her life, Valentine was beyond thankful for a jacket that Abernathy helped find for her during her stay at the shelter.
"That jacket kept me warm while I was very cold, looking for work every single day," Valentine said, gesturing to the jacket next to her and adding that she still wears it.
"I was homeless as a child. My mom left me in a hotel room and never came back," she said. "I worked really hard in life to get where I am."
Now, after her experience and time in the shelter, Valentine comes back as often as she can to help out and give back.
"I volunteer here all my spare time," she said. "I know there is something I can do, whether it is serving food or making somebody's night a little bit easier by bringing them a cup of peroxide for their feet, or a warm jacket or just an encouraging talk with a child," she said. "It makes everybody's day a little bit easier to get up the next day and thrive and be inspired to do something else."
"I like coming here because people that come here to stay out of the cold want something better, they just don't have options," Valentine said.
"My goal in life is to get my real estate license and find an investor that will get a tax property for me so I can make a permanent shelter," she said, and currently that is exactly what she is pursuing.
"You know, because people don't just die in the cold, people die in the heat too. Shelter's only open in the winter," she said.
Currently Valentine is in the process of obtaining her broker's license through a grant that covers the majority of the cost, though she has to come up with part of it.
Valentine has twins, a boy and a girl in kindergarten, and during the holidays last year she didn't get to see them, but after her stay in the shelter, her life has turned around for the better.
"I sat at a table at Safeway on Christmas (last year)," she said. "I sat in the park for a little bit. I didn't get to see my kids."
"It was difficult; it was really difficult. But I kept a smile and my Mickey Mouse jammies," Valentine said, chuckling. "I rocked those in the shelter."
"It was difficult every day, being out in the cold, because I would go into places, and I knew that they didn't want me in there — because I was dirty and I didn't have a place to shower," she said.
Now she said she has her home back from the state, has her kids again, has reconciled with their father and has a good church.
"They're going to come in with me one day," she said of her 5-year-olds, who she describes as sporty and really outgoing. "My son has lots of questions." Valentine said that her son is very inquisitive, and when he asks a question, he really asks a question. Bringing them down to the shelter may help answer some of them.
"I am thankful that I am with my family on Thanksgiving," she said, "that we are going to make a great diner. Their dad, I am thankful for him. He has been a blessing."
Just a year ago Valentine was in a similar spot as the people she now volunteers to help out, and she said, to put it in perspective, "Take off your jacket and stand outside for an hour. Do everything you can to not go back in the house," she said. "Walk down the street. That cold is real and the people that are here in it are real. They are real people. They're not just people sitting there. They're not statues."
"If you drive by and you see someone sitting in the same place for two hours, looking like they are cold, I am sure you have a blanket you can bring. Go to your house, turn around and bring a blanket, or food, or something," she said.
Valentine wants people to know, "A lot of it isn't by choice. A lot of people lose their homes, or a family member who had the home they were living in passed away, or maybe a family member fell ill to drugs and they lost their home that way. A lot of people don't have a choice."
Victor Pedroza has faced the same side of the coin as Valentine.
A year ago, he too was staying in the shelter with nowhere to go, and now he is making it his mission to help out the others who are still there as a member of the shelter staff.
"When I got my apartment, I still spent every day at the shelter. I would come and prepare food and help out with the other employees," he said.
Pedroza stayed in the winter shelter in November and December of last year, and he said "I was alone and lost and by myself."
"I was so depressed," he said, recalling Thanksgiving of 2018. He had nowhere to go and felt left out of the holiday.
Now, he said, "I have a family. The homeless they're my family. First of all, they're my brothers and sisters in Christ, and second of all I understand them," he said.
"This Thanksgiving I won't feel alone no more. I won't feel left out no more. I'll feel accepted, I'll feel a part of (it), because back when I was homeless I didn't," Pedroza said. "I'm going to be here and enjoy Thanksgiving with the people that I understand and that understand me, because they know me."
Pedroza had a rough childhood, full of addiction and abuse. He's seen a lot, the inside of gangs in San Francisco, shot in the head twice at short range with a .22-caliber pistol, and struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol, which is why he wants to keep reaching out to people who are where he has been.
"I just want to reach out to all those homeless, all those drug addicts, all those gang-affiliated people. I want to reach out to all those drug dealers because I was all of those, in the past," he said. "I understand people, and I'm not afraid to approach them."
"I know how all these people feel because I was once in their shoes," he said.
"I just thank the Lord that this last year since I got baptized and accepted him, gave my life to him, everything has changed. I still can't believe it," he said.
Pedroza said he hadn't had a driver's license since 1999, and he just got it back.
"I have a car, I have a job, a part time job at O'Reilly's Auto Parts, I have a roof over my head, a place to stay and my health," he said. "More importantly spiritual health."
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