Still grieving after the shocking death of her college honor student daughter, a 50-year-old DuPage County mother of seven and grandmother of eight knew going into Mother's Day that her special day was never going to be wonderful. But even Katherine's modest attempt to make the day a tiny bit brighter for her remaining children ended in a failure that just keeps heaping misery on her life.
"She's been through so much and she just keeps on taking beatings," says Chana Bernstein, president of the Saret Charitable Fund in Glen Ellyn, which is trying to raise the funds to help Katherine, whose last name we are withholding to protect her children.
Born in Mississippi, Katherine met her future husband when she was 12 and gave birth to their first son when she was 17. She moved to the western suburbs in 1976, took classes at the College of DuPage and became a chef at a nice hotel. She says many of her problems came about because of her abusive husband. She ended the relationship after 30 years, but says the man gave her HIV and the black eyes and broken arm that led to her old heroin addiction.
"When I would use heroin, it would take the pain away," says Katherine, adding that she started using heroin in her 30s and quit several years ago after jail stints and treatment. She says she regrets the choices she made.
"That's not a good thing to comfort someone," she says of heroin. "It's a real bad disease."
But life would get worse for Katherine.
"This is my first time being homeless," she says. "Even when I had a drug habit, I always worked and took care of things."
All of the problems with her former husband and drugs are "history," says Bernstein, who notes that Katherine's problems now are typical of people living "in the trenches of poverty," but made worse by circumstances beyond her control.
Katherine lost the house she rented in Glen Ellyn after health issues created problems with her kidneys in 2006 and a relative didn't pay the bills while Katherine was hospitalized, Bernstein says. No longer able to perform her job, Katherine went on disability and needed dialysis treatments to live.
In what qualifies as good news in her life, Katherine's need for a kidney transplant was answered by her 23-year-old son. He was a perfect match and donated one of his kidneys to his mom in August of 2010. Katherine felt better and even started working again.
"Everything came out real good," Katherine says, "until a few months ago."
That's when a blood disorder caused the new kidney to stop working, forcing Katherine to give up her job and go back to dialysis treatments three days a week. The stress and $28-a-day expense of having to take buses and a train to the treatments that always leave her wiped out persuaded her to buy a car, which she figured might also double as emergency shelter.
Given the options for someone in her financial situation, Katherine went to one of those easy-credit places that sold her a 2005 Buick Park Avenue with car payments of $500 a month, Bernstein says.
Now Katherine rents a motel room in Lombard for $225 a week. Her high school sons, ages 17 and 18, sleep in one double bed, while Katherine, her 16-year-old daughter and that girl's 19-month-old son sleep in the other. When she isn't in school, the daughter is always in the hotel room because she is on house arrest for a retail theft conviction.
Katherine's oldest daughter, the 24-year-old college honor student who wanted to be a lawyer, was scheduled to graduate this month until she died of injuries suffered in a car crash that was the fault of another driver, the mom says.
Hoping to spread a little joy on Mother's Day, Katherine let her teen sons take the car and their young nephew to a nearby park to play basketball. Later that afternoon, the boys' 18-year-old cousin and two 16-year-old girls were in that car when it was stopped by police. The girl driving wasn't wearing her seat belt, according to the Glendale Heights police report. She also didn't have a license or a learner's permit and had the toddler in the front seat next to her, the police report says. Another 16-year-old girl in the back seat was charged with a misdemeanor possession of a small amount of marijuana.
In accordance with the local ordinance, the car was seized by police. Bernstein met with police Wednesday and says she expects to scrape up the $585 by today so that the car can be released back to Katherine. The charity president says she might pursue legal options to recoup that money from the girl driver, but the more pressing issue is getting the car Katherine needs to drive to the hospital for her dialysis treatments.
The Saret Charitable Fund, which recently had to close its retail store in Glen Ellyn because of dwindling sales, is in the process of setting up a new location and website. In the meantime, Bernstein always is seeking donations for the people the charity continues to help through ChanaBern@aol.com and (630) 842-8876. Founded in 1985, the charity has a long history of helping people such as Katherine. Bernstein, who has driven Katherine to jobs back when she was employed, says Katherine has helped other homeless people and is "deeply dedicated" to her family and getting her life back on track.
Katherine says she is grateful for the help and shares that optimism.
"I want to open up my catering business and a restaurant, the first soul food restaurant in DuPage County," Katherine says. "One day, I feel this is going to happen. I have a lot of faith in myself and God."