On the 1600 block of South Madison Street, between Ellwood Park to the north and I-40 to the south, a little girl grins as she rides her bike up and down the sidewalk. Two older boys chase each other through a small parkway, its grass already turning green on this warm, sunny spring day. A younger boy, standing on the elevated porch of his 1920s-era home, kicks a ball and watches it roll down the steps.
Nearby, three mothers gather together in a cluster. While they watch their kids play, they also keep an eye on the laborers putting sheetrock on the one new building under construction on their historic block. Situated right next to the grassy area, a temporary fence around the building separates the kids from the construction zone.
The moms are laughing and talking about their day at school. When Eveline Rivers-McCoy joins them on the sidewalk, dodging kids in the process, she laughs as she pulls the moms into three sincere hugs. The four women don’t look alike, but the affection and familiarity they show one another is like that of a family.
A long-time icon of local philanthropy, Eveline has another word for it. “We call it a sisterhood,” she says. “All the moms are going through the same scenario. All the children are a part of the scenario, so their friendships have bonded, too.”
The women and their families are all residents of Eveline’s Sunshine Cottage, a cluster of homes in Amarillo’s historical district. Eveline’s nonprofit organization owns six fully furnished properties on the block and is nearing completion of a new structure right in the middle of the cluster – a two-story home containing two three-bedroom apartments. The families currently living in the Sunshine Cottage properties are headed by single mothers working on their education. They’ll all graduate within the next year with four-year college degrees. When they do, they’ll move out of the Sunshine Cottages and into places of their own, opening up space for other single moms pursuing education.
Since Eveline and her late husband, Wayne Rivers, first started the organization in 2001, she has seen 14 mothers graduate from college with two-year or four-year degrees. Today, these moms are local teachers, social workers, and nurses. Several of them have seen their own children grow up and enter college themselves – a second generation committed to education. They’ve come a long way from the poverty and homelessness that first brought them to this sunny side of Madison Street.
Mom is a Role Model Most Amarilloans who know Eveline first encountered her through her Christmas Project, which provides coats and other gifts to local children every December. “When we would work at the Christmas project, many of the families we were helping were single parents,” she says. Occasionally those single moms would have a job, but not always. “It was poverty-level. We would think, ‘What can we do to help so they would never have to come to us again?’” For Eveline, the answer to that question always came back to education. “If we could educate these families, they would have the potential for better jobs and bigger paychecks to pay their bills.”
When Eveline and Wayne noticed a five-unit apartment complex for sale on Madison Street in 2000, she had an idea. They secured a loan, bought the property, formed a nonprofit, and began renovating it. “Eighteen months later, we moved our first families in,” she says. All of the single moms had been struggling with money but were committed to getting an education. “The problems they had were problems finances could help solve,” says Eveline. “All came in with a desire to get a college degree and get off the government system.”
The goal isn’t just to move the mothers off the welfare rolls, but to ensure that their children never have to rely on the government, either. “If children are in an environment where Mom is showing them a role-model image – when to study, how to be patient, how to make the paycheck work – that it is all going to pass to the children,” Eveline says. “Mom is continually showing them how not to go back to where they’ve been. We want it to start with Mom.”
Heaven on Earth One of those moms was Shannon Davidson, a mother of three. When she met Eveline in 2005, Davidson was homeless, living temporarily at Faith City Ministries with her son and two daughters. “I didn’t have an education. I dropped out of high school and kind of was at a dead-end in my life,” she says. Davidson had earned her GED after dropping out and always wanted to become a nurse. But a recent divorce had thrown her life into upheaval. “I was picking up the pieces of my life and didn’t know what to do,” she says. She didn’t see any way she could go to school while providing for her kids.
Eveline suggested Davidson consider applying for the Sunshine Cottage. “She told me I should go home and think about it for the weekend and make sure it was something I really wanted to do,” Davidson says. “I remember thinking it would be the craziest thing in the world to turn down – a nice home for your kids and all that help and support and going back to school full-time to get a degree? It was huge.”
Davidson earned that degree. Today she works as a nurse at Plum Creek Specialty Hospital. Her son is 20 and working full time. Her oldest daughter is about to graduate from River Road High School and plans to go to college. Her 12-year-old daughter is excited about starting seventh grade and trying out for cheerleader. Davidson bought her first house four years ago. She’s engaged to be married in June. “It was like heaven on earth,” she says about her four years at the Sunshine Cottage. “It’s the difference between being able to make it or not. I didn’t have to work full time in order to pay rent and pay bills,” she says. “There’s so much help. Help with clothing for the kids and odds and ends for the house and groceries sometimes … it just went on and on.”
Her kids loved it, too. “When we moved in, the kids were a lot younger but they were on Cloud Nine. They had their own rooms. There were new clothes in the closet for them already. It’s a safe, clean, happy environment and it’s your own.”
Someone to Believe in Me Trissy Arceneaux heard about Eveline’s Sunshine Cottage from Davidson, with whom she had attended a few college classes while pursuing a degree in substance abuse counseling. “Shannon knew I was struggling,” says Arceneaux, also a single mom. “I was trying to work full time and go to school and take care of kids.” She and her four children lived in what she describes as “a bad neighborhood.” Her fiancé had passed away two years earlier. Arceneaux barely made ends meet by working an early-morning waitress shift at a hotel.
She says getting accepted into the program was an overwhelming change. Arceneaux had grown up poor and didn’t see a path out of poverty. “All I had seen in my life was struggle. But [then] I got to live in this immaculate house. [Eveline] did so much more than provide a house. She provided support for the girls. If you’re struggling in a subject, she’ll provide help for that. She was very encouraging. It was humbling.”
Arceneaux earned a two-year degree in substance abuse counseling, then went on to get her Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences from Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, graduating in 2013. Today she works for Xerox. “I’m the first person in my family to go to college and graduate,” she says. “I’ve set the bar for my kids.” Her oldest daughter began attending college at the same time Arceneaux did, and is now working full time as a pharmacy technician. Arceneaux’s youngest daughter attends Texas Tech. Her two younger sons are thriving in school.
“This chance – for someone to come in and believe in me like that – was exactly what I needed,” she says. Her best memories are of the sisterhood Eveline works so hard to facilitate. “You are there with other women who’re all single moms and juggling the same things you are,” says Arceneux. “It’s nice to be able to run next door to ask if she could watch my child while I do this or that. I miss that so much.”
Generational Change Nancy Brent has served on the board of Eveline’s Sunshine Cottage since it began 15 years ago. The coordinator of the Adult Students Program at Amarillo College, she works with the mothers to ease their transition into college. “I don’t know of many other places that have a program like the Sunshine Cottage,” she says, where a mom and her children can live with the stipulation that the mother must be pursuing higher education.
Like Eveline, Brent believes opportunity is the only thing standing between most of these single mothers and a successful career. “Most of them never thought they’d be able to go to college, because they couldn’t afford it. They could have been led to believe they weren’t college material.” Due to poverty, she says, “their self-esteem is so low they don’t know how to get out of it. People look at those in poverty and think they did it to themselves and they should know how to do better. But they may not have had a role model to see how to break that cycle.”
Women like Davidson, Arceneaux, and a dozen others found that role model in Eveline – and in each other. Eveline brags that her current residents all have a grade-point average of 3 or above. Two of them carpool to West Texas A&M University every morning. These women will see an influx of new residents as soon as the construction finishes. Due to a 2013 fire in the original five-unit complex, which caused $35,000 in damages to the 87-year-old building, the nonprofit decided to tear it down and rebuild using grants and insurance money. The resulting three-bedroom units have been designed to house larger families. “They will be totally up-to-date and furnished and complementary to the neighborhood,” Eveline says. She has already begun interviewing prospective mothers to move in once everything is ready. “We’ll have room for eight moms and their families.”
The incoming mothers won’t just see their lives change, but the lives of their children, their future grandchildren, and maybe generations after that. “It’s changed my children’s life and will, in turn, change their children’s lives and the next after that,” says Areceneaux. “We go to school and get an education. That’s what we do.”
On Madison Street, the group of moms say goodbye to Eveline and talk about starting dinner for their kids, after which everyone will do homework – Mom included. They call to their children, squinting into the western sun. The morning began with a gloomy cover of clouds and the threat of rain. But now the dark clouds are gone, having given way to the sunshine.
Picnic in the Park
On April 12, Eveline’s Sunshine Cottage hosts Picnic in the Park, a fundraising luncheon at Polk Street United Methodist Church, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., in celebration of the organization’s 15-year anniversary. Individual luncheon tickets are $50 each, or entire tables may be sponsored.
“We are featuring our past graduates and the speaker is Jill Ripa, our very first graduate,” says Eveline. Ripa teaches junior-high drama and English in Broomfield, Colo. “She graduated [from WTAMU] with a 3.8 GPA while raising three children and working full time.”
Because the Sunshine Cottage provides so many items for the moms and their families, Eveline says community donations are always needed. “Food stamps don’t take care of paper products,” she explains. “The community can help by giving toilet paper, tissues, paper plates, soap, et cetera.” She says gas gift cards and Walmart gift cards can help families buy clothing and other basics.
During finals week in May, the organization enlists help in delivering healthy casseroles, fruit, snacks, and other foods so the moms don’t have to focus on preparing meals that week. “When they come home from school and need to study, all they have to do is pick up children from school,” Eveline says. “They feed them fresh fruit and put in the casserole and they don’t have to stand in the kitchen and cook. We try to have that for four days for every household.”
In order to live at the Sunshine Cottages and receive support while pursuing her education – support that includes paid-for utilities, free laundry, furnished and decorated homes, and tutoring – mothers must agree to the following rules:
• They must enroll and complete 12 semester hours of school during spring and fall semesters, plus six semester hours every summer. • They must qualify for student loans or secure funding for college expenses. • They must be ready to leave homelessness and poverty, using education to get off the welfare system. • They must achieve at least a 2.0 average. • They must find and keep a part-time job. • They must be great role models for their kids. • They must secure private sponsorship to pay their rent, or apply for affordable housing programs like HUD or Families in Training (FIT). • They must maintain their homes and keep them clean. • They must be alcohol- and drug-free and keep their homes that way. • They must avoid dating relationships in order to focus on their children and education, until they gain stability outside the cottage.
by Jason Boyett
Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.