On a bright summer afternoon, Vanessa greeted me with a smile despite being tired from a long day's work. It's been almost two years since I wrote a profile of Vanessa and her odyssey to escape domestic violence ("Shelter from the storm," Aug. 29, 2007). At that time, she was getting a foothold on a new life after almost two decades of abuse. The police, the courts, even her own family repeatedly failed to protect her, so she left her home state and fled to Raleigh with her teenage son, not telling her own mother her whereabouts out of fear her abuser would track them down. She spent eight weeks at a shelter for domestic violence victims before finding a job and a place to live.
Before Vanessa could tell me anything, I saw the update in her face. More than the smile, there was an indescribable lightness to her expression compared to the tough, tired one I recalled.
"All of my problems are normal problems," Vanessa said, her eyes looking brighter than I'd ever seen them. She's no longer worried Victor will come after her. "I'm not going to live in fear or in shadow. I'm just going to live my life."
Shortly after the profile was published, a co-worker at her supermarket job saw Vanessa reading the story and guessed Vanessa was the subject. Since then, the women have become best friends. Instead of just surviving, Vanessa said, she and her son have actually started to have fun.
"I started to feel like I was a part of something in Raleigh and not just thrown here," she said. "It made me not be so defensive and on guard. People could see who I really was and not that hard mask."
Still, financial problems she's battled alongside the abuse almost landed her back in a shelter. Vanessa is good at saving, even while working for meager wages, but the bills simply added up to more than she could pay. Facing her third eviction notice in a year, Vanessa took a leap of faith and told her store manager the whole story. Her employer maintains a program to help employees in crisis. It paid some of her bills. She was given a full-time position and has been promoted twice since. She moved out of a roach- and rat-infested cinderblock apartment into a much nicer place, and her older son has moved in, too.
"My biggest challenge now is living with two teenagers," she said.
She'd like to go back to school in the evenings and complete a bachelor's degree. Vanessa is smart, strong and dedicated. She deserves an education and a chance to use her talents for more than just survival.
She was on my mind as I cleaned out my desk last week. After six and a half years, I'm leaving my position as a full-time staff writer for the Independent to study media policy and new business models for journalism. After all, journalists can help people like Vanessa by listening, researching, verifying and putting their story into the world. While there are fewer paid reporters these days, there are thousands of people like Vanessa who need to be heard.