Darlene is humble, faithful, and bold. She puts her head down and she works. She is tough as nails and handles everything thrown her way with a steady and optimistic determination. 


She is a mother to two, and a grandmother to four. These six individuals are Darlene’s life; they make her who she is. As she says, she doesn’t have her own story. “We have our story.” And what a brave, beautiful story it is.


Darlene raised her daughters, Toya and Shuanta, as a single mother. When they were young, Darlene made sure they had everything they needed to be safe and happy. She made sure they knew the value of working hard and staying joyful while building strong, independent futures for themselves.


As Darlene recalls parent-teacher conferences when the girls were in high school, an unrelenting grin spreads across her face. “Teacher after teacher would tell me how great my girls were—how well they were doing in school, how kind they were to their classmates, how they were always smiling and made those around them smile, all while getting into as many sports and activities as they could.”


Darlene tells it like it is, “I know I was a good mom. I made sure my daughters knew that, together, there wasn’t a challenge we couldn’t fight or a goal we couldn’t reach.” And when Toya was in college, and Shuanta was just in junior high, they proved how true this is—how formidable their shared, joyful strength is.


The news stopped them cold. Toya was diagnosed with chronic lupus, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue throughout the body, causing inflammation, pain, and damage.


And although lupus can be moderate, Toya’s case was not. At the height of her flares, the pain was so unbearable, she could not move, and she was forced to stop attending college. It got so bad that the doctors prepared Toya and Darlene for the worst.


Darlene prayed. She dug deep for the strength to put on the brave face she knew her daughter needed.  She hid her tears and ever-present fear, refusing to let them affect her daughter’s resolve to live.


No one watching Darlene could be unmoved during this time. She plowed ahead, working full-time to cover the escalating bills, caring for her youngest at home, and spending hours on end in the hospital with Toya keeping her spirits high. Together, Darlene and Toya were cracking jokes to make her doctors and nurses laugh!


The resolution of these women inspired Toya’s medical team to work their hardest to help Toya fight back from the brink. And together they did. Toya beat the worst of her lupus. Her platelet count rose, her pain began to ease, and she was emitted from the hospital.


Now, 15 years later, Toya holds her Masters of Business Administration and Health Management and is working to start her own organization to help individuals with lupus, and their families, fight the disease, just as she and her mother and her sister have done. And she is a mother to Wesley, a young boy the women describe as a “miracle.”


Toya still lives with lupus – and she always will. She has flare-ups and she faces the threat of the disease worsening again at any moment. And this is why Darlene applied to become a Habitat Chicago homeowner.


“I am building and buying this home for my grandbaby, for Wesley, who will be living in the new home with me. I’m so happy to give him his own room, to give him the space he needs to be the bold kid that he is. We can play in the backyard. I can barbeque in the summertime. And I am doing this for Toya, so that if the lupus ever gets that bad again, Toya will have a comfortable place to go. We’ll have the space where I can watch her and take care of her. I can’t believe this peace – it’s a great feeling. Owning my own home means so much to me. We’ve worked hard to get to this point. We’ve come so far.”


They’ve come so far, they’ve overcome so much – and that journey is one that has also helped inspire Darlene’s youngest daughter, Shuanta, to purchase a Habitat Chicago home of her own. When Darlene talks about having Shuanta and Shuanta’s three boys right next door, she simply beams (and she reflects upon how much more of a handful her four grandsons are than her two daughters were…).


Darlene wants her family’s story to be known. She wants it to inspire others who are going through similar experiences and let them know that they can do this. And she is proud for it to represent the stories of hundreds of thousands of women who are climbing mountains to build and maintain safe, decent places for their families to live, because as Darlene says, “I deserve this. You deserve this. All us women deserve this.”

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