Imagine spending all 65 years of your life inside a neighborhood that went from being upscale and safe to its recent distinction by the Chicago media as “one of America’s biggest open-air drug markets.”
When H.O.M.E. resident Thom, 60, moved from a gang-infested, crime-ridden section of Humboldt Park to the Nathalie Salmon House a year ago, he tried to convince his longtime neighbor Dianne to come along with him. She simply said she couldn’t imagine leaving her home. Then last Fall she suffered a fatal heart attack lying on her couch.
“She grew up inside the same house she died in—1008 North Mozart,” says Thom, who picks Dianne as the older person who has had a tremendous impact on him. “She used to explain, ‘I grew up with this and I changed with the neighborhood.’ ”
Dianne was a beloved mother-figure to generations of impoverished inner-city youths she tried to mentor and instill values into as they grew up around her.
“A lot of those kids she raised are now in gangs, but she tried to teach them good things not bad,” says Thom, adding that Dianne was affectionately nicknamed “Dragon Mama” by some of those same kids. “She was widely loved. You should have seen all the candles, flowers and teddy bears that were piled up outside her building when she passed. They took up the whole sidewalk.”
When asked what he admired most about his dear friend, Thom said, “She stood up for herself and everybody else. After she got through with people, they backed down. They knew she was right.”
Thom, a disabled Army veteran who served both in the Vietnam War in Cambodia and in Germany as a guard at the Berlin Wall, testifies, “I was at ground zero for gang activity. There were shootings every night. Cops were either arresting some or helping others. Last summer, five people were shot only three doors from my corner. You couldn’t go nowhere because you were afraid. I felt like I couldn’t walk to the corner store.”
To make matters worse, Thom, who had to end his 15-year career as a hairdresser in Berwyn due to arthritis and neuropathy from diabetes, was renting space in a two-bedroom apartment shared with two other men. Much of his daily life was being conducted out of a small room in the back, sharing the bathroom and kitchen with the other two.
“I got tired of feeling like a paid, unwanted guest,” says Thom. “Between the house and neighborhood, my blood pressure was sky high. I used to get night sweats.”
Since coming to NSH Thom has lost weight and seen his blood pressure and blood sugar numbers drop dramatically. He is not only enjoying being able to freely walk about the neighborhood without fear for his safety, but he’s also been offering his expertise—and hard labor--in landscaping (a job he did in high school) to help beautify the grounds of NSH.
“Everything’s improved a 100 percent,” he says today, only two-and-a-half months after his arrival. “I’m even walking better. Before, just to walk down stairs and to the corner would take 15 minutes. Now I’m just zipping around. Health wise, this place has been a godsend!”
We want to hear about the Older Americans who have had an impact on your life. Share your story with us and we may feature it on our website and social network sites. Please email your story and photo to Lorena at LorenaA@homeseniors.org.