At my first job right out of college, I spent eight-plus hours a day getting people to “Call now!” and “Learn more online!” for clients of a small-but-ambitious ad agency in Chicago. Needless to say, I wanted to put my writing to work in a way that was actually productive for society.
Luckily, my friend Brandon, who I spent a semester making snarky comments with in our math for morons class at Indiana University, was a do-gooder. He’d just accepted a job as the Director of Development for a nonprofit that helped homeless women and children get back on their feet, and they were looking for a volunteer to work on branding and brochure projects.
So, I rolled up my sleeves, pulled out the laptop and penned a tri-fold brochure that would be used for fundraising. When I was asked to tackle their annual report a few months later, I needed reinforcement. I recruited one of my art director friends, Andrea, to lend a hand with photography and layout. We wanted to let the women of the program tell their own stories, and decided our concept would focus on getting the keys to a new life.
Brandon, Andrea and I arrived to the housing campus one particularly humid, sweltering Saturday morning to start interviewing. As we opened the gate, school-aged kids playing in the yard and their smiling mothers greeted us. The recently built brick campus was located in Chicago’s West Side, in the kind of neighborhood that’s fine during the day but not one you’d particularly want to walk alone in late at night. Its buildings included a mix of brightly painted studio apartments and townhomes surrounded by a lush green lawn.
Our first interview of the day was with Sharon. A short woman with deep dimples and a cheerful belly laugh, she enthusiastically invited us in. Her apartment was a modestly decorated studio, flanked by a full kitchen and private bathroom. Sharon was eager to share her story as she showed us around, pointing out pictures of her kids and grandkids back in Mississippi, furniture she’d paid for with money earned from her full-time job and a three-tier shelf with her prized book collection.
“I haven’t done a lot of traveling. But in books, I’ve been all over the place,” she said. “Even though I haven’t been to North Carolina, I’ve seen the trees. It’s some place I really want go someday.”
Above her small dining table, Sharon had hung two illustrated framed prints on the wall. One was the Bridge of Sighs and the other was a gondolier on a canal. Both in Venice.
The sight of those simple prints hit me in the gut. My husband and I had the same bridge hanging in our apartment. Except it was a photo we’d taken on our honeymoon in Venice a few years before.
I remember snapping the photo with our new digital camera, a wedding gift, as our petite tour guide pointed out the Bridge of Sighs. The bridge, which connects two prison buildings across a canal, dates back to the early 1600s. She explained in her thick Italian accent that two windows had one spectacular view—it was the last thing inmates saw before being taken to jail.
In that moment, in that apartment, it took a framed print to show me that every opportunity is a gift. And it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
By no means have I had a life of privilege. I grew up with parents who didn’t care much for each other but cared a great deal for me. I graduated high school, something that not everyone gets to do. I went to college. A man loved me enough to marry me, and we traveled to Italy. To say I felt humbled in that moment doesn’t begin to describe it.
For Sharon, the framed print symbolized a new life. She worked with determination and discipline to build her future. She fulfilled a dream of having her own apartment and took pride in hanging pictures on her wall.
Sharon crossed that bridge from homelessness and drug abuse. And as she looked out the window on her Bridge of Sighs, she saw freedom, a good life on the outside. And she worked until she earned that opportunity.
*Some names in this article have been changed for privacy purposes.
About the Author: Amber Davis is crazy about Chicago but is usually found daydreaming about her next trip. A copywriter by day, Amber spends her free time going to brunch, training for races, cooking and checking out concerts. She hopes to eat and drink her way through the world, most recently traveling through Buenos Aires, London, Brussels and Amsterdam. Follow her escapades at @amberdaviseyes and @bloodybestchi.