The name, Miss Ola Quarterman, keeps rolling off my lips. She is lodged in my mind. Miss Ola was just one of Rob Walker’s foster moms, but she’s the one who cared enough to get Rob back on track. Rob says “She saved me.” Miss Ola is lodged in Rob’s mind as the person who saved him. I am grateful for Miss Ola Quarterman because I am grateful for Rob who has been a solid, reassuring presence for me during my years working at the shelter. “Big Rob,” as people call him, stands at 6’4.” He could use his strength for power as 1st shift operations supervisor. After all, he and his team are the go-to guys for de-escalating situations when tempers flare. But Rob conveys something else, hard to put a finger on, a mix of kindness and…
Rob leans back in a velour stuffed chair. January sunlight outlines the side of Rob’s face, his walkie talkie beside him. He’s on call to handle disruptions.
I was in and out of foster care all my life. Last foster care mother was when I was 10. I stayed with her in middle school, high school. When I graduated from high school, I got a job, started going to Cleveland State. I was doing everything right, but then I had an injury.
It’s 2009. I go to a nightclub, the one on Lee and Harvard. Suddenly I’m jumped by about 20-30 guys. Bad head injury and I almost die. When I get out of the hospital, I have to learn how to walk again, how to talk again. I was in bad shape.
In the sunlight I notice for the first time the slightest indentation on the left side of his forehead.
Took me some years to get back. I worked at a Giant Eagle warehouse back then on Miles and Richmond. Healed up a little but wasn’t able to fully work, I was slow. I had to build so many pallets per hour. I couldn’t build them fast enough, so they fired me. I became homeless. I was living with my sister for a little bit…went back with my foster mother for a little bit…
A few years passed and I’m living with everybody. Slowly I begin to heal, but I still couldn’t work from 2009 till I was hired here in 2015. Being on the job, I really started to improve. That shows what a job can do.
High and Dry
Back when I was injured, everybody turned their backs on me. Took years and years to heal and in that time, everybody turned their back on me. My Baby Mama, all of them, they thought I was just going to be messed up the rest of my life. They turned their backs- you know? I’ll never forget that. Left me high and dry. Guess they thought I was going to be stuck with that injury the rest of my life.
I was living with my Auntie and I said I’m tired of living like that. Maybe I just need to get a new start. My brother who used to be here, he told me, “Man, just go down to 2100, get a new start.” Even with all the rumors about 2100, all the bad stuff, I said, “Forget it, I’m going.” I came down here in 2014. I started seeing a few people I knew. My memory was coming back little by little.
At this point I notice Rob goes back to being discharged from the hospital. I see Rob’s smooth face show lines of stress, and sweat is forming on his brow. I feel humbled. People who suffer trauma such as homelessness and profound injury often recall time in random order, like those interruptions to their lives.
Now tears form in Big Rob’s eyes as he continues.
At the hospital, they reattach my eye. They don’t keep me though. No one stays without insurance. My friends drive me back home to my Baby Mama house where I walk in the door and collapse flat on my face.
But I came out of it. I got a job in security at 2100. Terry Vaughn in Central Intake Dorm convinced me I had a lot going for me. He got me into Northpoint (transitional housing) so that I could come back and be hired on staff. And the Operations Director said he’d hire me. (A person has to have moved out of the shelter in order to be hired as staff at 2100).
I was a monitor, 2 days on weekends and I’d fill-in when someone called off. I worked that 6 months to a year. Then I got full time, then Back-Up Supervisor on first shift, then I became Supervisor in 2017… You know, and here we are now.
Rob’s voice changes from his Supervisor’s voice to one that quivers with hurt.
I’ve seen some hard things… I seen a lot since 5 or 6 years old. I was in and out of foster care my whole life. I never knew what was going on; why we keep being took from our family; why we keep being separated from each other. What’s going on? – I never knew until I started getting older. Then older, I started realizing it’s the drugs…my mother and them on drugs…the drugs control their life. I started seeing things, figuring things out. “Oh, that’s why we keep being took from each other.” Separated. Drugs, that’s why I don’t have to go to school. I’m 8 years old, watching my brothers and sisters.
How are your brothers and sisters doing?
They’re doing okay.
Probably have “trauma” too? I find myself using this word with Rob now which he does not refute.
Yeah, they’re messed up too. Couple of my brothers can’t stay out of jail. And one of my brothers is dead. Mario. He used to be here; he was the one who told me to come down here.
What happened to him?
He got in a situation with his girlfriend. He was in a standoff with the police and the police shot him in 2017. When I got to the scene, I was hoping to take care of the situation. The police told me and my other brother to wait in the car. They put something under the door to see what he was doing then went in there and shot him. I don’t know what he did that was that bad, but one thing he kept telling me, after he did 4 years in jail, “No matter what, I’m not going back in.”
So, how can you look back on this and still have kindness toward others?
Got to. With all this, I still got to stay humble and remember, “Jesus is the reason.” I pray for a lot of stuff, and as I started getting myself together, it started happening, you know? My prayers started being answered. I’m a firm believer in the Man upstairs. He takes you out of any situation that you’re willing to get rid of. A firm believer, if you ask for help, the Man will help you. Just like when I came here and I asked for help, they helped me.
God might not be the answer for some, but for Rob, God is his anchor.
Miss Ola Quarterman
My dad is out of the picture. I don’t mess with him. He never been there for me. Even my mother, she got clean from drugs over the years, but neither of them were there, like when I needed them growing up, a kid, in high school, they weren’t there. It was my foster mother. She’s the only consistent person in my life. I owe my life to her. She saved my life. When I first went to Miss Ola Quarterman, I was behind in school two or three grades behind. When I was living with my mother, I never had to go to school. That put me behind. With Miss Quarterman, I eventually got up to my right grade and graduated from Elliot Middle School then JFK High School. Then went off to CSU.
I credit her with all that. I don’t know where I’d be right now without her to be honest. Really don’t know, you know? Just been through so much man. Like where does it finally stop, where do I get a break?
Whatever I can do
Just being here with the residents and staff, it’s like you all are my family. Just like my family here. That’s why I go so hard, and look out, try to do what I can for whoever. Because I remember being like that. I remember when I had no one, nobody there. So, whatever I can do, whatever I can do, I’ll do it – because I been there.
I never forget what it feels like: nobody to count on; nobody to depend on; nobody to call; you just got to do it on your own, just got to live. Just things I’ll never forget. I just try to be cool, try to be humble now, try to forgive people, but just never forget. You can forgive people for doing you wrong, but you just never forget.
No matter where I go I try to forget it – but I can’t. It’s burned in my memory. But I’m around some good people now.
Some of these residents…I love these guys, they’re my brothers, you know? I had a long talk with Blunt (Dave Blunt, operations director) the other day. He told me don’t give up…a long talk with him. It was something on my mind…he told me don’t give up, look at the big picture, look where you’ve come from.
Yeah, I just got a lot of bad, bad, bad memories, I guess. You know? But look where we are now: I don’t hold no grudges against no body. I good. God done blessed me this far, and that’s what I’m thankful for. It’s life, the cards you’ve been dealt. And it’s what you do with them, you know? So now I just take care of my kids. As long as my kids are good, I’m good. I never want them to go through what I went through.
Rob is crying as the sunlight fills the office.
That’s the biggest thing, I don’t want my kids to go through what I went through, man. Be scarred like that for life.
Rob is not a dramatic person; this is simple honesty coming from him. Then I ask “What helped you most through all of this?”
My foster mom. She’s the only one who can get the best out of me. Like she knows when I’m being lazy, she knows when I’m slacking. She knows what to say to get me off my butt and get the best out of me. It was mainly her. And prayer, you know, prayer helped. And being humble. I can still be me. I’ve got a good heart. I’m going to give, be humble…be nice.
Rob’s voice evens out and he’s back to the present. I tell him, “When a resident is acting out and you’re de-escalating, I hardly know it, because you handle it in so low-key a way…talk about de-escalation!”
Yeah, soon as I see something, or hear something about to happen, I try to jump right in; de-escalate it right then, before it gets to the next level. That’s just how I try to do it. It can go from zero to one hundred with a snap of the finger.
Through the work Rob does on his job, he continues to grow while being a model for those he helps. It’s like the saying, “Act your way into a new way of thinking.”
Being a solid object
Being a supervisor isn’t just a title. Being a supervisor to me is being a solid object for your staff and clients – to be someone people can come to and relate. Being a person who’s going to be fair, no matter what. Most of the guys from my experiences, they just want to be heard. They don’t want much, just to have someone to talk to who’s going to listen. To have you sit there and listen like you really give a damn. That’s all they want. Somebody to hear them out. They’ve been through a lot of stuff in their lives too. It’s not just drugs with everybody, like the public thinks – these guys going through a lot of challenges themselves, and I understand that. Like me, having been in foster care all my life, and never really had family. So basically, the way all of us is, we’re like family. We keep each other going.