QUINCY — How does a graduate of the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary College in St. Peters, Mo., end up in Quincy cooking Thanksgiving dinner at the Horizon Food Pantry?
Not all of us have safety nets to catch us when tragedy strikes.
After surviving domestic violence and divorcing her husband, Lauren Washburn, a St. Louis native, relocated to Hancock County about five years ago. She and her three kids moved in with her mother-in-law, as she needed reliable childcare to work at a local hog farm.
Then one day, that all changed.
“I guess about a couple months after living with my ex-mother-in-law, she ended up kicking me out.” said Washburn, who also totaled her car not long after she arrived in Hancock County. “I became homeless for the first time in my life. That’s when I realized what a cold world it was. I reached out to my family back in St. Louis. They said, ‘I hope you find yourself out there.’”
Washburn had no safety net.
She said her mother-in-law kept the kids and didn’t provide visitation.
“She did not let me see them for a long stretch,” she said. “That was the worst part of it, because I have raised my kids since the beginning, went through my divorce, got a good job, a house and had my kids with me. Like I said, everything kind of switched up on me.”
Didn’t see her kids for a year
At one point, Washburn said she didn’t see her kids for a year. Not only did her mother-in-law refuse to let her see her kids, but it also was impossible to talk to them.
“I would call, and I would call, and there’s no answer,” she said. “They didn’t even know I was trying to get a hold of them.”
Searching for resources to help her, Washburn made her way to Quincy.
Things didn’t get better.
“I was homeless. I mean, nowhere to go,” she said. “Then it was COVID. Shelters weren’t accepting anybody, you know. There was just nowhere to go.”
A trained culinary professional wouldn’t figure to have a problem finding a job, but when Washburn filled out applications, she didn’t have a phone or address to put on it.
“And I’m like, ‘How am I going to be able to get a job?’” she said.
Washburn tried to keep a positive attitude.
“I don’t deserve this,” she said. “We deserve better. We need to be safe. There were a lot of things I’d overcome before I’d even become homeless. I just knew God was going to restore my family to me, that this would make us stronger.”
Eventually arrested for meth in December 2019
But even the strongest start to weaken.
“I started having severe panic attacks, sometimes lasting all day long,” Washburn said. “The things that used to bring me peace, like hiking through the woods, I could not do those things anymore. I had this overwhelming scared feeling inside. I didn’t know how I was going to be able to live a normal life again, and if I didn’t get my kids back, how was I going to be the mother I needed to be?”
Housing options were offered — some with conditions that made her uncomfortable.
“A lot of people will say, ‘You can stay here.’ But (some had) weird things required that I refused to do,” Washburn said.
Methamphetamine eventually entered her life.
“The more lonely and the more hopeless I got, the more that I just looked to that drug to numb me,” she said. “I guess the pain that I was feeling physically and mentally, is what I used it for.”
Washburn eventually was arrested in December 2019 and spent a short time in the Adams County Jail. Fortunately, she had established a relationship with Horizons Food Pantry. They helped through the next stages of her life.
Washburn’s probation officer suggested entering the New Leaf Lodge in Peoria, which provides residential services for adult women suffering from substance abuse. After a successful recovery, she spent eight months at Quincy’s Well House, a ministry for women requiring reclamation and training services to become contributors to the community.
Once back in town, Washburn made Horizons her first stop.
“They were the ones who vouched for me (to get into New Leaf) … took me down to Peoria when I didn’t have a ride,” she said.
‘Food is the gateway to life’ at Horizons
The position of lead chef soon opened. Washburn was hired. With food critical to the Horizons’ ministry, Washburn’s skillsets play a key role.
“Food is the gateway to life here,” says Sarah Stephens, executive director of Horizons. “We think food is what brings people in the doors, but then they get inside the doors, they find love, and they find acceptance. They find a place where they feel like they belong, and they’re valued. Many times, because they find those elements of hope, they also find a renewed interest in life.”
Once inside, they often take advantage of the many services Horizons offers.
People coming to Horizons for Thanksgiving are in for a treat — a meal prepared by a certified Le Cordon Bleu Chef. Ham is this year’s main course.
Washburn cannot wait to get started.
“It is really awesome to be able to cook for so many familiar people,” Washburn said. “Just to be around such amazing people who are just there for me and have become a second family.”
Now a grandmother, she has her own home in Quincy and transportation. Her two youngest kids are in school.
After surviving her struggles, Washburn has plenty to be thankful for.
“I survived it. And I’m thankful, I’m so thankful,” she said. “The people here, man, they believed in me. Just that one little ride down to Peoria got me to where I needed to go.
“God was there for me and would answer my prayers and would provide. Maybe I had to lose everything to realize that God would provide for me.”
For more information on how you can help Horizons, visit www.horizonsquincy.com.
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