Ellis Cotton’s decision more than a decade ago to turn his life away from drug addiction required a move from Englewood to Joliet, where he found help in all the right places.
“It actually saved my life,” said Cotton, 55, of Joliet, who entered into Stepping Stones’ abuse treatment program upon moving to Joliet and eventually turned to Section 8 public housing.
But it took some time before Cotton could truly stand on his own again.
Saturday marked a big step in Cotton’s life with his graduation from the Housing Authority of Joliet’s Family Self-Sufficiency Program, a five-year program available to people on Section 8 housing assistance. Participants set short- and long-term personal and career goals with a case manager, with the ultimate goal of being employed and off welfare.
Cotton, Melody Woods, Sophia Anderson and Patricia Hernandez, all of Joliet, were all honored Saturday during a graduation ceremony held at the University of St. Francis. Speakers included U.S. Rep. Bill Foster and state Rep. Larry Walsh Jr., D-Elwood, among others.
As part of the program, which is made available through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, income earned went into participants’ very own escrow accounts instead of going toward rent.
When Cotton graduated Saturday, Cotton received a check for $5,959, which he’ll use for living expenses while he works toward his commercial truck driving license, he said.
“Everything is finally falling into place,” Cotton said Saturday in the lobby outside Sue Manner Turk Theater at University of St. Francis. “Back in Englewood, I didn’t want to face life. It’s like God is really showing up at the right time and I’m grateful.”
On Monday, Cotton begins a one-month commercial driver truck training program through 160 Driving Academy in Joliet.
He’s guaranteed a job after successfully completing the program, he said.
Melody Woods, 50, of Joliet also graduated from the program Saturday. When she first entered into Section 8 housing, Woods said she was fighting to get her credit back on track after having filed for bankruptcy.
Now, the money she earned over the course of the program – about $10,000 – went toward a down payment on her very first home. While in the program, Woods also earned her associate degree, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. She starts classes next month at USF towards a doctorate in education, she said.
“I feel like I’m playing catch up because there’s a lot things I wanted to do when I was younger, but I had my first child when I was very young,” Woods said.
She now works as a case manager with the Senior Services Center of Will County.
R. Dale Evans, coordinator for the housing authority’s program, said he’s proud of those who graduated from the program Saturday.
“Perseverance has made all the difference and made them get to where they are today,” Evans said. “What I’ve done is try to encourage and inspire them to stay to the grind. Of course, throughout that process, there’s been challenges. There’s been obstacles. You stumble. But the important thing is to get up and start running again.”
The Family Self-Sufficiency Program is limited to 25 families. Nearly all have been single mothers, Evans said, but anyone can apply. Each time someone graduates from the program, a new family can come into the program, he said.