CINCINNATI -- If you’ve ever wondered what resilience looks like, look no further than Monique Gilliam.
Her dad died a violent death when Gilliam was only 13. Her mom tried to kill herself a few months later, something Gilliam’s other relatives tried to keep from her.
Gilliam was 16 when her mother tried to kill herself a second time. That’s when Gilliam learned her mom suffered from manic depression.
One of Gilliam’s younger brothers had it, too, and tried to kill himself when he was just a boy. He survived that time but died by suicide when he was just 16.
Gilliam’s mother never recovered from his death and killed herself about 18 months later. By then Gilliam’s beloved grandmother and great-grandmother also had died. But even after all that loss, Gilliam pushed herself to move forward.
“Everyone goes through things differently and deals with tragedy differently,” said Gilliam, who was 19 when her brother died and is now 39. “I don’t ask any more, ‘Why me?’ I say, ‘Why not me.’ There are no losses. It’s all lessons.”
That resilience and determination so inspired publishing executive Jennifer Scroggins that Scroggins asked Gilliam to be part of a book called “(Extra)Ordinary Women: Ten Inspirational Stories,” scheduled to publish this month. The chapter on Gilliam focuses on how she has coped with the tragedy she has experienced in hopes that her story can inspire others.
“She has almost since the beginning of her life been dealing with obstacles that I could not imagine being able to face,” said Scroggins, executive vice president of KiCam Projects, which is publishing the book. “I’ve never met anybody who just so emanated positivity the way she did.”
Even for someone with as positive an attitude as Gilliam, it hasn’t been easy.
She confronted one of her most difficult struggles a few years after her mother died.
‘Like the walking dead’
Gilliam had been in a serious relationship and became pregnant with her first child. She had a good job at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center at the time and was excited about the baby.
But she went into labor way too early -- just five and a half months into her pregnancy -- and her baby boy didn’t survive. All at once, she understood her mother a bit better.
“When my brother died, my mother was very angry about that, rightfully so. And I used to tell her, ‘Mama, I know you lost your son, but I lost my brother, and people lost their friend,’” Gilliam said. “She was so succumbed in her sadness and couldn’t let it go. She’d actually said to me: 'I hope you never know what it’s like to lose a child.'”
Gilliam didn’t have the time with her son that her mother had with her brother, but she felt the loss acutely.
A year and a half later she had another baby boy, who is now 15, but her struggles didn’t stop.
Gilliam has gone through job losses and homelessness. She has gone from living in a nice apartment and driving a nice car to relying on food stamps and cash assistance to support herself and her kids.
By her mid-20s, she began to feel alone, acutely aware of the loss of her parents, but especially her mother.
In late 2011, a friend referred her to MomsHope, a local nonprofit that connects low-income, single moms with faith-based mentoring. For the first time in a long time, Gilliam felt surrounded by the love and support of mothers, sisters and aunts.
“They gave me my confidence back,” Gilliam said. “They gave me my life back. I was like the walking dead.”
The book explains other setbacks and how Gilliam overcame them. But what she’s doing now is a whole new story.
Faith and the big picture
In June Gilliam began working for the Family Independence Initiative, or FII, as the organization’s Cincinnati liaison. In that role, she helps recruit families to become part of FII, a nonprofit that helps connect low-income families so they can craft their own strategies to improve their lives.
The fact that she has experienced so many of the hardships that other low-income families face has made her especially good at her job, said Vashti Rutledge, the Cincinnati director for FII.
“Our families in this community don’t need to be saved. They need to be supported. They need to be invested in. They need to be trusted. They need to recognize that they have incredible power,” she said. “And Monique is a perfect representation of that.”
Gilliam’s experiences also serve as a reminder of the strength that local families display as they work through their struggles, Rutledge said.
“There are many Moniques in our community,” she said.
Still, there is something special about Gilliam that inspired Scroggins, even beyond the fact that she has refused to give up, no matter what life has thrown at her.
“She also has this great eye for identifying opportunities, and she’s got a really strong handle on what her gifts are,” Scroggins said. “If each person could see in themselves, what is the thing I’m really good at and how does it apply to helping others, I think that could make a huge difference.”
Gilliam has even bigger plans for herself. She has been telling her story in public and will be speaking again at a MomsHope event on Oct. 16. She wants to write a book someday and launch her own nonprofit organization.
For now, she is raising her four children just a few blocks from where she grew up in Over-the-Rhine, starting and ending each day by having a conversation with God just as she has since she was 14 years old.
“My faith has been shaken many a times,” she said. “But even when I feel broken, I’m never really broken. I have moments, but I don’t let those moments overshadow the big picture. You’ve got to shake it off and keep it moving, and that’s exactly what I do.”
It’s a lesson that Gilliam hopes others can learn from her story of loss.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.