Michelle grew up in a tumultuous Des Moines household to parents who divorced when she was 6. But that was not the end of her trauma; it was just the beginning.
The spitting image of her dad, Michelle says she was the target of cruel comments from her mother, who was heartbroken and angry. Just making a face similar to her dad’s could set her mom off.
“There was so much violence at home,” says Michelle. “You could feel the animosity, you could feel the tension.”
Lacking support at home, Michelle tried to find it with her peers.
“Any other child finds people who do want them around,” she says. “Unfortunately, the people I found who accepted me were the most wrong crowd you can imagine.”
It wasn’t long before those friends got Michelle into drugs. At an age where most kids are still riding bikes and hosting sleepovers, Michelle was addicted to crystal meth.
Her home life added another wrench to the situation. Her mom kicked her out when she was 14. “Booted me out in the rain,” as Michelle puts it.
There followed a period of disorder where Michelle bounced from school to school and home to home with no constant in her life except drugs. By the time she was 15, she was sent to placement for juvenile offenders near Eldora, Iowa.
At first, she fought treatment, concluding that she had been sent to a “nuthouse” for kids who had more serious problems than she did.
“It took being there for a while to realize I did have problems."
"It took almost a year before I started taking in the therapy and the treatment," says Michelle, "before I realized that I had my fair share of problems. Once I was able to accept it, it did help.”
All told, Michelle was in placement for 3 years, staying on longer after getting clean because she was a minor with no stable home to which she could return. On her 18th birthday, she wanted more than anything to leave, but she had promised her dad that she would stay for an additional six weeks to earn her high school diploma.
“It felt really dumb at the time,” Michelle says with a laugh. It’s one of the only decisions from those years that she is proud of.
Stolen from Success
As a legal adult, Michelle was sober and working a good-paying job. But problems still haunted her. The family friend she went to stay with after her release took advantage of the money coming in. Even more disastrously, tragedy struck right as Michelle experienced one of life’s great gifts: falling in love.
As Michelle started dating her current boyfriend, Mike, her best guy friend got jealous. When she rejected him, the friend became enraged.
He stalked and terrorized Michelle. “I would get pictures of my office building downtown that said: ‘I’m waiting outside for you.’ I would wake up and there would be shoeprints outside my bedroom door in the basement."
"It came to the point where I was scared to leave the house. It ended up doing a lot of mental havoc.”
After a long pause, Michelle took a deep breath and said "He ended up raping me."
Her boyfriend Mike was her “knight in shining armor” during this experience, but the trauma was too much for her to continue without other support. Her therapist recommended she take a leave of absence from work to address her mental health. When the time came to file paperwork with her employer, her therapist was one day late. Because of her history, Michelle says, that was enough for them to fire her on the spot.
“I was real lost,” Michelle says of that time, “off my way real bad. I eventually starting using again.”
Stuck in the Cycle
Struggling with unemployment and mental health issues, Michelle fell into a treacherous cycle of poverty, drug use, and crime.
“The more depressed I was because I didn’t have a job, the more I used,” she says. “The more I used, the more broke I was. The more broke I was, the more I stole. The more I stole, I started going to jail.
"Because I had theft on my background, nobody wanted to work with me. So what do you do? Steal again. It was a huge circle that I couldn’t crawl out of.”
Michelle admits to stealing from the grocery store to feed herself. The last time she went to jail, she had taken ant spray, two pounds of ground beef, and a block of cheese.
Losing her license didn’t help either. She was jailed numerous times for driving while barred, but driving was the only way she could get to the help she needed.
“When you’re sitting in jail, you’re crying, you’re emotional, you’ve got this feeling like you’re never ever going to go home,” Michelle says, referring to the come-downs from meth she experienced in jail. “That’s the worst in the world.”
Unstable housing was also part of the cycle for Michelle. With no income, bad credit, and a drug habit, Michelle was evicted from several apartments. Sometimes she could fall back on family; other times she had no one but herself. That’s how she ended up in Redhead Park.
“That was the lowest time of my life. I couldn’t quit crying. I knew I had to stop. I just had to quit using. I was so done with that life.”
Mike and Michelle both got sober together. After quitting, things started to look up. They found an affordable basement apartment to rent.
“Three days after we moved in, the landlord kicked us out,” Michelle says. “He just wanted the rent money. I called my mom crying: ‘Mom, I didn’t do anything wrong this time. This guy kicked me out, and he’s calling the police. I don’t know what to do.’”
For Michelle, it was the last straw in a life scourged by homelessness and unemployment. Fortunately, a change was only a few weeks away.
The Door Opens
After that desperate phone call, Michelle’s mom agreed to let her stay in her house for a few days. Committed to breaking the cycle for her daughter, she dragged Michelle all over town looking for resources to help. One of their neighbors, who works at Children & Families of Iowa (CFI), a United Way-funded partner, suggested Michelle visit.
CFI conducted a long interview with Michelle about her history and goals. Then they recommended LiftOff, a joint program of CFI and ArtForce Iowa, another United Way-funded partner. LiftOff is a paid program for at-risk youth to get job experience in graphic design, marketing, and entrepreneurship. It was through LiftOff that Michelle met John Mark Feilmeyer, then the executive director of ArtForce Iowa.
The two worked closely together to prepare for the Ignite Community Innovation Challenge through the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines. In the finals, Michelle told her story and helped win ArtForce Iowa $20,000 in funding.
Although the experience was a good one, Michelle looks back more fondly on the hours she and John Mark spent practicing. Seeing her potential, John Mark was eager to help Michelle with her resume and job applications. After LiftOff ended, he helped her get a part-time job elsewhere. But he had other plans in mind for her long term.
The funding Michelle had helped secure from the Community Foundation was earmarked to establish StreetCred Studios, a screenprint and digital media studio for youth with criminal backgrounds. A few months after Michelle had finished LiftOff, John Mark called to offer her a position as production assistant with StreetCred.
“John Mark really stepped up,” she says. “I think he’s probably the only person here who talking about can make me tear up.
"Because he did so much for me, it meant the world. It went miles.”
The feeling is obviously mutual. “I can't overstate my pride in Michelle,” says John Mark. “Her resilience is remarkable. She had a list of obstacles: every one she knocked down. Housing, transportation, employment. She proved herself over and over again.”
That is part of the reason why, in July 2016, after the production manager left StreetCred, John Mark offered Michelle the job. To John Mark, the transition made sense: Michelle knew the most of anyone working there. Even her boss was asking her questions. To Michelle, though, it was not only unexpected, but unbelievable.
“I started as a production assistant and now I run the place,” she says. “I am the top dog. I never knew anything like this was possible!”
For Michelle, her position at ArtForce Iowa was the achievement of a dream she didn’t even know she had.
“I’ve had so much failure in my life, that when I got that little taste of success, that was all I needed,” she says.
Michelle has new goals now—improving her credit, saving up, earning a business degree—but the most important one concerns her new employees at StreetCred. She is dedicated to helping them turning their lives around, like John Mark did for her.
“I honestly feel like, if I didn’t have a criminal background, I would not be the boss that I am now."
She continues: “There are very few things they are going to throw at me where I have not been in that situation or something similar.”
She relishes the role of “Mama Michelle,” giving advice when they come to her—and even when they don’t. While T-shirts dry or the delivery truck idles at a stoplight, she doles out a variety of tough love that she learned throughout her youth.
“I care about these kids, so instead of telling them what they want to hear, I tell them what they need to hear,” she says. “A lot of times I feel like I am giving the hardest advice to follow."
"The advice I give is something that took me until I was 24 years old to do.”
Stay away from negative influences, even if that includes your best friends. Take responsibility for yourself. Speak up when you need something. That’s the kind of advice Michelle gives, but with a big dollop of: It’s OK to make a mistake.
Her employee’s success stories seem to mean more to her than her own. After encouraging one of them to earn his high school equivalency diploma through Bridges to Success—a United Way-led initiative— she framed a copy for her desk.
“I’m a firm believer: Your past makes you who you are,” Michelle says. “You may have had a bad childhood, but you can either grow from it or use it as an excuse. If you are here at ArtForce, you are trying to grow from it.”
A Force for Good
United Way of Central Iowa funds three programs at ArtForce Iowa: StreetCred Studios, which designs, screen-prints, and sells T-shirts; DSM Heroes, which offers art workshops and supportive services for refugee and immigrant youth; and Creative Pathways, which offers the same for youth involved in the juvenile court system. In all three programs, Michelle sees a common thread: Emotional support.
“The power of believing in somebody is crazy to me. I have never felt the support that I do when I walk in the door."
“ArtForce just makes you feel normal and accepted,” says Michelle. “I can’t stress enough how important that is. I can’t think of anything I needed more as a young adult than support. And this place is unconditional.”
Some of the young people who come to ArtForce have had rough childhoods; some have been abused or neglected. Others have made bad choices as teenagers. Michelle knows they all need the same thing.
“When you feel like you’re alone is when you make the worst decisions. Whereas if you know you’ve got someone to listen to you, it makes a huge difference.”
Michelle is a big part of the support system at ArtForce. The youth come to her because she has been in their shoes. Her co-workers and supervisors seek her advice and compassion.
“My last year at ArtForce with Michelle taught me a lot,” says John Mark. “We learned that work-family is possible. Every morning started with a hug, and every problem she had with me or others, she was strong enough to work through it.”
Michelle calls ArtForce “a family” and “home.”
That’s why it’s so painful for her to see the youth get discouraged and depressed, especially after background checks make it hard for them to get jobs. Michelle hopes that, in the future, employers can look past a criminal history to give youth a second chance, to let them prove themselves like Michelle did.
“Once the door gets slammed in your face so many times, you get discouraged. It took getting a door opened for me to even care.”