Cynthia Rowe: Busting Stereotypes, Doing The Work, And Prevailing

image courtesy of Andrea Vallejos/Flickr Creative Commons
image courtesy of Andrea Vallejos/Flickr Creative Commons

Cynthia Rowe — who will be recognized with the NEW Light Alumna Award at our gala next month — busts many stereotypes that persist about the homeless. She is educated, has a daughter about to graduate college, worked at big name companies that provided retirement plans. She comes from a large family with whom she is still very much in touch. And although she may not have had a consistent roof over her head while homeless, she was never without safe shelter. “I couch-surfed,” she says matter-of-factly.

So what is her story? How does someone with that many factors in favor of stability come to NEW? In her own words: addiction, unresolved anger, and a domestic issue that was the first of many dominoes.

“I’d been struggling for 20 years,” she says. “I’d try to get clean. But each time, it was for the wrong reasons. I relapsed twice. The last time was the last straw, the end of the road. I had to do it for me, not my family or my mom or my kid. Me. And I had to deal with anger, figure out what the triggers were, and deal with them constructively. That’s where NEW came in.”

Cynthia had an easier time than most when she came to NEW. She had never gone through the worst of homelessness — when you lose sense of day, night, and routine. And growing up with eleven siblings meant she could take NEW’s many life-skill building house rules in stride — chores, schedules, curfew, housekeeping, money management. Still, it took effort. “The resource staff and counselors at NEW will tell you what the deadlines are and encourage you, but it’s up to you to figure it out and make it all happen in a day.” No small thing when you have to make several meetings, many court-ordered, and via not always reliable public transportation.

But Cynthia’s bigger, most difficult challenge had nothing to do with any of the above. “The 30 days I was unable to see my ten-year-old was the hardest,” she says. “But I now know that it was necessary. I had to go through that time, to strengthen myself, so I could be a better parent.” It took time, but part of the court-ordered meetings resulted in Cynthia realizing what her triggers were, how much anger she had to face from childhood traumas and how to deal with them in a way that was constructive. “I hurt myself more than others,” she realized. And that was key to making progress, and eventually getting back her daughter. More than anything else, that is what Cynthia is grateful for. “I did the right thing by coming to NEW. I didn’t lose my kid.”

Cynthia also appreciated the peaceful, encouraging, and welcoming environment at NEW. It was a welcome change after months of uncertainty. The staff at NEW worked with her to set achievable goals. They also modeled positive behavior. In particular, NEW’s executive director, Wanda Steptoe, would attend meetings or make conversation with Cynthia and others in the hallway. “I would watch Wanda,” Cynthia says. “I wanted what she has. Not in a jealous way. I wanted her confidence, and easy calm.”

Cynthia now exudes those qualities. Clean for ten years, today Cynthia is a proud mom, and a happy, healthy, and confident NEW alum. It took work, time, and a lot of meetings. “I went to hundreds of meetings,” she says. But the connections, the support, and the lasting relationships she built with counselors and staff at NEW have sustained her through the years. Asked what she wants people to know about the organization, she says, “NEW gives people a chance to set and achieve goals. And the way they do it is by giving you confidence. Like the chores — which give you structure, and something to do that you can do. That builds people up, and gives you the ability to focus — which is my favorite word. But you have to want it. If you want it, and you focus, you can achieve it.”

Cynthia Rowe’s journey, and success, will be recognized and celebrated with The NEW Light Alumna Award at our 2016 Moving Out Of Homelessness annual gala. 6:30 – 8:30 pm, October 25, 2016 at the Marriot Marquis in Washington, DC (901 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20001). Tickets are available online.