Everybody was in the military, that was a man until me and my sister. We both joined the military right out of highschool. We were blue collar Pennsylvania. Mom never worked. She always was home. Dad worked a lot at the chemical plant. He was a wounded vet. He had a land mine blow up on him so when he recovered from all that he went to work at Witco. I went to boot camp at Fort McClellan, Alabama and then I went to food service specialist training at Fort Lee. I was gang raped by three other soldiers. The first thing my mother said to me when she found out was that I wanted it to happen. Who says that? The Army didn’t offer any kind of counseling or tell me maybe I needed to do that. I had to eat in the cafeteria with the people that did this to me because they were innocent until proven guilty.”
As Renay traveled the pathways of her life, she discovered a few obstacles as well as some gems. “After I was discharged, I came back up to Pennsylvania working in a bar and diner, a step above a truckstop. I was working there for $3.45 cents an hour and that was good money. After meeting the father of two of my kids, he got in trouble right away while I was pregnant with one of my sons. I wasn't thinking about getting pregnant. I was on drugs and found out I was pregnant and I quit right away. It was like a switch in me. It was a godsend. My son knows he saved my life. He really did because for some reason that made it stop. I didn’t realize there was counseling I needed to go through. I went 12 years sober after that and had my daughter 15 months after my son. During that time, their dad went to prison for the first time for 11 months for careless and reckless driving and bodily injury. So then I went to a shelter for battered women. I maintained work and then I met my youngest son’s father.”
Eventually Renay left Pennsylvania for Wisconsin and after living in different parts of the state, she ultimately landed in La Crosse with an unsettling beginning. “I needed to leave the Madison area and I had heard about La Crosse from someone so I moved out here with a man. When we got out here he started drinking. He went ballistic and held me captive for two weeks in an apartment. He held me there for two weeks and never let me leave. Nobody knew I was missing. One day he fell down the stairs and gashed his arm open and had to call the ambulance. I was rescued by the La Crosse Police Department. I got rescued by accident by the police because of his fall. I have very few memories of those days. Because the lady downstairs was yelling when he fell, the operator thought the call was a domestic dispute so the officers wanted to check the apartment and that’s how they found me. I was in the hospital for a couple of days before going to New Horizons. Eventually, I was housed in transitional housing.”
Time passed and Renay found herself in an unfamiliar situation. “I was in a really abusive relationship and we were using meth. My PTSD was also really bad at that point. My rent would be late because I couldn’t get myself to go to Kwik Trip just to get a stamp and it wasn’t because I didn’t have the money. I had a hard time maintaining housing and trying to explain my situation didn’t help. There is no speaking when you aren’t wanting to be heard. There were reports of foot traffic and neighbor complaints and eventually I lost my house. I had 72 hours to get my belongings and go. I was scared and I didn’t know how to fight it.”
Renay experienced homelessness, learned to travel the ropes of the streets, survived, and now lives in her own cozy home. “I was homeless for a long time, but I worked construction and other odd jobs. Luckily for me, I was able to sleep on my job site so I didn’t have to battle the elements all of the time. In my third year being homeless I did learn about the Warming Center. It doesn’t make sense to me how people in homelessness can still get drugs, but it just happens. That constant cycle of fighting the fight and being defeated persists. I got totally lucky and got Couleecap on my side and they picked up my rent so that I was able to get this place and get off the streets. Couleecap still helps me out and they helped me with getting on disability too. I was trying to be in the workforce and I have had some jobs, but I can’t pay for it on my own.”
Today life looks very different for Renay and she remains thankful for her loving children. “Since I have been housed I have been able to be very active. I built a canoe trailer on the back of my bicycle. I bike it down to the boat landing and then canoe to an island and camp. I love to bake and cook for people. I love coloring and photography. I have been featured in a show in La Crosse and I have colorings that I do quite a bit. I love to do things for people, including my children. I am so blessed to have them in my life after everything and I am so proud of all three of them. My one son went from being in foster care to being a part of the big brother program. My daughter is expecting a baby and I am so thrilled to be a grandma. I see myself moving close to her so I can just be a grandma and take pictures of the mountains.”
A message we must all hear from Renay revolves around positive self talk and seeking support for our mental health. “I want people to remember to always have faith and to work on positive self talk. Once you get torn down, I don’t know how you can build yourself back up. A lot of people who have been homeless have had tragedy beyond mine and I can’t imagine trying to overcome the things that even a parent makes you think of yourself. I would also look for support for your mental health. If your mental health is under control, it will help with drug issues and the social stigma from society.”
Artist Note: Renay lived with storms swirling all around her, yet she persisted like a Black Eyed Susan which returns year after year despite the elements of the weather. Renay continued and continues to persist and bring beauty to those around her.