If You Looked at Me
By Keith Arivnwine
“God touches us but sometimes He touches us in a special way, letting us know that everything in our lives is about to change.”
First of all, I would like to give all honors and praises to my father in heaven and my lord, Jesus Christ.
If you looked at me, you would not know that I lived on the streets of Oakland in abandoned houses where I practiced drug activity for over twenty years. If you looked at me, you would not know; from 1990-2012, I was in and out of State Quentin State Prison. I got out of prison and lived in an abandoned home, and revisited my old life. In 2012, I was arrested again, but this time, it felt different. It felt like God stepped into my path and changed it.
During my time in Santa Rita Jail, I met a guy I recognized from my old neighborhood. He told me about the St. Mary’s Center’s emergency winter shelter. After expressing my dilemma about having no place to call home, he insisted that I visit St. Mary’s Center.
For this reason, when I was released, I prioritized visiting the shelter, and an astonishing thing happened. At St. Mary’s Center, I gave my personal information to the woman at the front desk. Then she surprised me when she asked, “Okay, so what do you want to do with the rest of your life?”
I thought to myself, who does that? No one has ever given me the chance to reclaim my life! I felt welcomed with open arms, for once experiencing no judgment, just acceptance, by the offer of real help. I felt like I reclaimed my respect and dignity to take ownership of my actions from thereon. At that moment, God’s Plan and mine, with the help of St. Mary’s Center, all started to come together.
During this time, I stayed at the winter shelter on a cot in the middle of a gymnasium. I made friends from similar backgrounds. He became a source of inspiration because his inherent motivation and hustling attitude to be self-sufficient reminded me of my former self. For this reason, I participated in all the classes offered at the shelter, like Money Management and Basic Skills. The “Changing Your Emotions” course was the most impactful for me because I learned emotional regulation through practicing self-control. It is empowering because I now trust myself and my emotions.
After four months, by the grace of God and the help of St. Mary’s Center, I found an apartment that I have now had for over eight years. I know the only reason I can maintain a healthy and productive lifestyle is because of the re-training and healing I received at St. Mary’s Center. Now I make sure to give back to serve my community. I am the St. Mary’s Center Council of Elder President, where I am a role model for other seniors working to better their lives. I am grateful that the changes I made led to reconnecting with my son, a relationship that means a lot to me. If you looked at me, you would not know I have struggled during my early years; I survived a pandemic, poverty, lost friends and family, and I am still standing strong. Anyone who reads this blog knows this; if I can change, so can you. Give it to God, and maybe just maybe, he will send you to a place like St. Mary’s, as he did to me.
if you looked at me, you would not know...that for most of my young years, people could not figure what group I belonged in. I only spoke Spanish and had messy curly, nappy hair because my beautiful Dominican mother who had straight black hair did not know how to comb it. I wore pants under my dresses, because she did not know how to dress me as an American. My little brother strangely had blond hair and white skin. I loved him with all my heart.
We were so poor we could only afford clothes from the second hand store, which never fit me right, nor matched enough to be acceptable in the eyes of my school mates. I was bullied and shunned, and spent many lunch periods and recesses inside with my teacher, who loved me and helped me make it through a very difficult time.
As an adult, i gave birth to four beautiful mixed race children. I was determined to give them the self-esteem they needed to cope with an often mean and unfair world. "If You Looked At Me" is the book I wished I had when my children were growing up. Thank goodness, it will be here to help my granddaughter see her beauty and the beauty that exists in her friends.
- Janny Castillo
"I'm the little girl in the blue dress."