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Tapeka’s sons were 10 and 16 when she last hugged them goodbye. The family had been living in south King County; caught in the crossfire between rival street gangs and open drug deals. Tapeka knew that life firsthand, for a time. She also knew that if she didn’t send her boys away, they would more than likely follow the same path.
So she put them on a plane to Georgia to live with their grandmother. In a life filled with pain, that day stands out as one of Tapeka’s most difficult.
“It was so hard – I couldn’t even take them to the airport,” she said. “I just watched them walk to the car… and then I cried.”
She has never doubted she did the right thing.
“If they were still here, they probably would have been dead by now,” Tapeka said. “I would have lost my boys.”
Not long before that day, the single mom had been driving home, past a 7-11 in south Seattle, when she heard gunfire. She turned to look as a young boy fell to the ground. He had been shot, and was gravely injured. The boy who died that day was her son’s friend; he had been on his way to her house. And even as Tapeka had grown accustomed to living in a dangerous neighborhood in a home riddled with bullet holes – her best friend had been shot right in front of her door – that tragedy hit too close to home. It was time to save her sons’ lives.
The journey to that day was not an easy one. Tapeka lived with her grandmother until she was 12, in an environment she later learned was hiding “a lot of family secrets” – including molestation. It would be years before she fully understood what had happened to her, but the difficulty didn’t end when she moved to the Northwest with her mother.
In fact, things got worse. Tapeka began running away; looking for an escape from a dysfunctional environment that also included drugs. An uncle got her hooked on crack cocaine, and for a year, Tapeka lived on the streets – selling drugs to survive. Her weight dropped to 85 pounds. Meanwhile, she got pregnant.
While Tapeka’s mom cared for her infant son, she begged her daughter to get into treatment. Tapeka resisted – until one particular day, when she finally hit rock bottom: In a gang altercation, she felt a razor blade slicing across her neck. She was terrified.
It was two days before Thanksgiving. Tapeka went home.
“Mom, I’m ready,” she announced. “I want to get clean.”
Tapeka entered a 90-day treatment program and finished in 60 days. That was in 1996. She has been clean ever since.
But even then, the cards were still stacked against her. Tapeka was a survivor; having lived through sexual abuse, drug addiction and gang violence. She also was a single mom without a high school diploma or work history. What she knew better than nearly anything was life on the streets; hustling just to get by.
On the day she sent her two sons to Georgia, Tapeka still had an 8-year-old daughter, Sky, to look after. And in the years that followed, Tapeka and her new husband, Dyshaun, worried constantly about making ends meet.
At one point, Sky was living with a cousin, while Tapeka and Dyshaun slept in their car. Tapeka was exhausted.
“I didn’t want to be there anymore; I was suffering,” she said. “I was tired of being on this earth.”
By the time she was ready to ask for help, Tapeka had survived four suicide attempts.
A friend suggested the family call 2-1-1, the Washington information network that offers referrals for housing and other services.
The intake staffer she met with let Tapeka know there was a waiting list for housing and asked how she would get by until something opened up.
Tapeka said, “I don’t know. But I have a daughter and I’m just going to do whatever it takes.”
Eight days later, the family got word there was a space for them in Hopelink housing at Avondale Park.
Tapeka will never forget the day they moved in.
“We were so happy – we actually had beds, and heat!” she said.
And for the first time in probably decades, she was able to sleep peacefully at night.
“It was so quiet,” she said. “We didn’t hear gunshots at night.”
Hopelink housing requires that all residents work with a case manager to develop goals and move toward self-sufficiency; tackling such topics as employment, education, financial stability and life skills. Tapeka hit the ground running; setting goals, working, paying off debt and charting a stable course for the first time in her life.
In February, after three months at Avondale Park, the family moved into low-income housing at Ronald Commons – earmarked for households earning no more than 50 percent of King County’s median income.
Today, despite some physical issues – including arthritis in both feet – Tapeka is working as much as she can. She wants to go back to school and earn her GED; a goal that will be much easier to accomplish now that she is living in housing adjacent to the new Hopelink Shoreline center, which includes an adult education program.
Tapeka dreams of starting her own nonprofit organization for youth, while also helping women who are trapped in the lifestyle she barely survived.
“My mission is to help other women like me… and to help kids like my daughter and my sons who don’t really know the right way,” she said. “Because I’ve done all of it. I look back and I think about how many times I got close to death.”
Her dreams don’t end there. Creative since childhood, Tapeka envisions a youth center that would include a studio for kids to pursue music and dance. She loves working with computers and wants to try designing graphics for posters. And the family is saving for a car.
Now living in the first real home she’s known as an adult, Tapeka is excited about her future. And although she aches to see her two sons – and gets tears in her eyes when she talks about them – she knows there’s a good chance she saved their lives.
Today they are 16 and 22, and thriving. Creative like their mom, both are into music. The youngest is doing well in school and is excited for prom. The older son has a good job and has already bought a house.
“I gave them a better life … I know that,” she said. “Up here, I probably would have had to bury my kids. And it’s easier for me – to have peace of mind, knowing that they are safe… so when I hear about a shooting, I don’t have to wonder, ‘are my boys okay?’”
Tapeka credits Hopelink with giving her the support she needed to start over and the strength to keep going.
“I’m on top of the world,” she said. “I’m still here ... my boys are safe. I have a very supportive daughter. I have a new husband.
“If I can survive all of this… everything I’ve been through, I can survive anything. I have a home, and it feels good.
“Hopelink gave me a chance, and I’m not going to let anyone mess that up.”