“I was six years old, when my parents divorced. This event catapulted me into a journey to find myself, to find my worthiness, and a search to find love. Even though I knew my parents loved me, it was something that I didn’t feel. I know that many children of divorce feel something similar. Eventually, I tried to numb my feelings with drugs and alcohol.”
What were you addicted to?
“I was addicted to just about anything people would give me. Weed, cocaine, and meth were my top three, but mostly I used alcohol. I fell really hard into that way of life. I was that girl that would drop her kids off, at an almost-stranger’s house, go out and sell her TV and use the money to get high. Eventually that lifestyle caught up with me. As a result of the decisions that I had made my children, myself and my boyfriend all ended up in a homeless shelter.”
What happened to cause you to turn your life around?
“My boyfriend’s mother had asked me to go to church with her. This time, for some reason, I decided to go, despite having drugs waiting for me back at the shelter. At the church, this girl that looked and sounded like me walked on stage, and told a story about the time that her friends had found her overdosed in a corner.
I thought, Man, what if my kids were to come home and find me overdosed? Not only would they not have Mom, but that would stick with them for the rest of their lives.
Hearing that story made me believe that if she could stop doing drugs and alcohol by finding her faith, then I could too. I had to do it, because I needed to be there and healthy for my kids.”
After you had this transformative moment, what did you do next?
“Our family spent four months in a homeless shelter getting our lives back in order. I found out through my friend and mentor Sue Vicory that I had a talent for graphic design. I never had any formal schooling, but by having the courage to take on projects I started growing my skills in graphic and web design. Almost overnight, a few years after our homeless shelter time, I started my own business which grew extremely fast, somewhere around five hundred and fifty percent. Suddenly my story of being homeless, turning my life around and now running a successful business, was getting local and national attention. We were on the cover of magazines and on the Today Show.
I knew that this was the American dream, but for this ex-homeless girl without any formal education it was so overwhelming. You can only grow so fast on limited funds, my business was collapsing on the inside. What looked like this great beautiful thing on the outside was suffocating me on the inside. It got to a point that made me feel as if I wanted to go back to the homeless shelter. At least then life was simple.”
Your new found success felt suffocating?
“I realized that even though I was telling business stories through branding, I was missing the most important thing. Where were all the other people in the world that had also gone through struggles and made it out the other side? How can I find them? How can I help them know that they are not alone? That their story matters. How can I help them to inspire others to change their lives? Just like that one young woman’s story did for me that day I went to church so long ago..
So I changed my direction and started my organization Hope Raiser. From there I set out on a journey to find these stories. I didn’t know what I would end up finding. It didn’t take long before my new calling to raise hope in others actually found me, in the form of a devastating tornado in Joplin, Missouri.”
What made you decide to go to Joplin Missouri after the Tornado?
“So when the tornado happened, I did not have any ties to the Joplin. I have never been in a tornado. I’ve never even thought about disaster relief, but something in my spirit kept insisting, You have to go.
I argued with it, I’m not equipped to help out.”
What did your organization do in Joplin?
“Our response to the Joplin Tornado was very different. We screen printed a thousand t-shirts with the word Hope written on the front and a picture of a piece of notebook paper on the back. We went down there, to ground zero, and set up a tent. Anyone who visited the Hope Raiser tent would get a free t-shirt and a sharpie so they could write and share their story on the back of their shirt.”
How were your t-shirts received in Joplin?
“At first individuals would write messages like, “God Bless Joplin”, “I survived” or “Screw you Tornado!”
A month later people would write a paragraph, at three months they were filling the entire piece of paper with their gratitude journal on how they found hope through the storm.
When they came to our tent, it was the first time that many of the survivors were able to breathe. They couldn’t say out loud what they had experienced because it was so traumatic, if they vocalize their experience, it would make it real and some were just not ready to deal with things fully. With us they didn’t have to say it out loud, they could write it down instead on the t-shirt that we gave them. This moment to reflect gave many of them their first breath after the storm. The Hope shirts gave them a voice, and helped them to realize that their stories mattered.”
What experiences would you like to share from your time in Joplin?
“We were sitting at a coffee shop getting ready to go out and do our volunteering for the next day when we saw somebody walk in with a Hope shirt on. While they were standing in line to order their coffee, the person behind them in line tapped them on the shoulder.
They gave this person a big hug and said, I’ve been going through the same things, and I thought I was the only one who was still scared.
The Hope shirt created this connection. It helped its wearer to know that they were not alone, and that their story mattered to the people around them.”
Did you witness any stories that inspired you?
“Three months after the Tornado, through handing out Hope t-shirts and inviting individuals to write and share their stories, we met a family where the mother, Carrie Carmona, had lost her husband and her eight year old daughter, Arriy. She still had four daughters to raise in the aftermath. In meeting Carrie and continuing to be engaged with her during the grieving and healing process. Carrie and her family began to engage in their own hope raising acts and service. She and her family went with us during other Hope events, performing random acts of kindness and handing out more Hope t-shirts. Whether it was a homeless shelter or a prison, they would go with us. She had lost more than so many others, yet she was going out and doing things that helped to inspire hope in the lives of others. Before long they were running Hope events by themselves.
What’s amazing about their story, is that it started with a t-shirt and it turned into them finding their hope, finding their strength, finding their power. Two years ago when the Moore, Oklahoma tornado hit, we were at an event and Carrie Carmona’s now sixteen year old daughter, Adrie, raised her hand and said, I’ve been through that. I want to go down there now.
Because of her initiative, we when went down to Moore Oklahoma and spent three months like we did in Joplin. After their experiences the healing process and the effect that Hope Raiser had on their own lives, wanting to help other tornado survivors was an easy decision to make. When they pulled into Moore, Oklahoma, the very first person that Carrie Carmona met was a man standing at the fence crying. She walked up to him and asked if he was involved in the Tornado.
He said, “Yes.”
She asked, “Did you lose anyone?”
He said, “Yes. I lost my eight year old son.”
There was nobody else in Moore, Oklahoma at that time, except Carrie Carmona, that knew what that man was going through to lose an eight year old son to a tornado. It had been almost two years to the day since she lost her eight year old daughter.”
Wow! That is amazing!
“It’s the power of our stories that give people the strength to stand a little bit taller. To know that if there person before them can still walk that they can too. If on their hardest days they can be reminded that they are not alone, if this other person can make it through hardship, I can too.
They don’t have to be tragic. We all have a story that can inspire and encourage someone else.”
Many of our readers at Moxie Voice come to our website because they are facing overwhelming darkness. What would you say to encourage them?
“Number one, you are not alone. I have met thousands of people that have shared incredible stories. I guarantee that I have heard a story similar to yours. Someone before you, has been through what you are struggling with now.
There is also somebody else out there that’s waiting for you to find the strength and the courage to tell your story, so that they can know that they are not alone. So today when you’re struggling, today is the day that you have to find the strength to stand up, because somebody’s life is depending on you to provide them hope in the struggle that you have overcome.”
For more information about Stephanie
Tilman and her Organization Hope
Raiser and the various charities it helps to
support please vist the links below: