22 Aug The most resilient woman you’ve never met, Contessa Korper: A Greater Cleveland
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Just outside the downtown you know is the Cleveland you probably don’t.
I admit, I didn’t know this place or the people who call it home – not really – until I was embedded here as part of cleveland.com’s “A Greater Cleveland” initiative.
Some of the things many believe about the city’s East Side neighborhoods are true, borne out by irrefutable statistics. Yes, most children are being raised by single mothers. Yes, families often rely on government assistance to survive. Yes, there is gun violence. A lot of it. Perhaps even more than the police are aware of.
But among the goals of “A Greater Cleveland” is to dissolve a widely held sentiment that poverty visits those who deserve it. In the comment sections of cleveland.com stories, readers often persecute parents for the challenges their children face – blaming parental irresponsibility for all urban afflictions and writing off an entire population with the shallow argument that if people just worked hard, they would prosper.
So today, I bring you the story of Contessa Korper. She is a mom living in a Cleveland public housing project and working hard to provide a better life for her children. I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone more resilient or less self-pitying, despite the bleakest of beginnings — as a crack baby, abandoned with her older brother on the steps of an Akron church in the 1980s.
I hope you read her story with the same kind of open heart with which she shared it.
A family’s dark secret
For one brief, glimmering moment, it seemed things could have turned out all right for Contessa.
After spending her earliest years in foster care in Akron, she and her brother had been adopted by Cleveland parents, who lived on a stable street and held respectable jobs. Ostensibly, she had been saved from the undertow of poverty, raised within reach of positive influences and given a real chance at a prosperous future.
But her new family had dark secrets with the power to steer the course of a person’s life — like a riptide, tugging below the surface, sending its victim adrift.
Contessa was 4 years old, her brother was 6, when they first came to live with her adoptive parents.
She retains that first day among her earliest memories. It was the cookies they offered her that left the impression – those flower-shaped cookies with a hole in the middle, just the right size for a preschooler’s tiny fingers. At the time, she viewed the offering as her new parents’ attempt to quell her anxieties. But in hindsight, knowing what came next, she remembers the gesture as more plying, more coercive.
The abuse began almost immediately, she says. Her brother was locked in the basement without food for days, as punishment for minor misdeeds. She remembers making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and trying to shove them under the door for him.
Then there was the sexual abuse at the hands of their father. The fondling that robbed her of her innocence. The awful, emasculating things she saw him do to her big brother.
Contessa describes her father at the time as a “functioning crackhead.” To the outside world, he appeared to be a pillar of his community – attending church regularly and participating in family reunions. But behind closed doors, she says, he was a monster, who would get high and bring prostitutes and drug dealers into the house while his wife was at work.
Surviving sexual abuse, victimized again
If Contessa’s mother knew what was happening in her home, she didn’t put an end to it.
When Contessa was 15 years old, she started running away for long stretches at a time, opting for homelessness and sleeping on friends’ sofas over the dread of her father’s sexual advances. Sometimes she would return home for short stays. But then the abuse would resume, and she was gone.
Although she continued to attend school, she had grown to loathe authority figures and was, by her own admission, “every teacher’s worst nightmare.” She didn’t last long in almost any school she attended.
Eventually, however, Contessa found a good fit in a program at Cleveland’s East High School designed for students interested in childcare and early childhood development. Contessa loved kids, and she flourished there.
But then, one summer night before her senior year, Contessa’s life took another devastating turn. She was on her way home from her summer job at the now-defunct Geauga Lake theme park. She normally changed buses at Randall Park Mall, but at that hour, the bus had stopped running that route. So Contessa walked.
On her way, a man accosted her on the sidewalk and dragged her onto a porch. There, two of his friends held her down, while he raped her. (The case went unsolved until 2013 – when DNA evidence collected at the time was finally tested as part of a statewide initiative to test decades-old rape kits. Contessa eventually testified against her attacker, who turned out to be a serial rapist. He is serving 22 years in prison for attacks on three women.)
As Contessa tried to cope with the aftermath of that attack, her father laid hands on her for the last time. She waited until he fell asleep, locked him in his room, doused the draperies with gasoline, lit a match and left.
He managed to get free. Contessa was arrested, charged with aggravated arson and subjected to psychological evaluations. The judge sentenced her to two years of probation.
Manipulated by a friend
Contessa still graduated high school on time, and while staying with a friend, she tried to assemble the pieces of her life.
But unbeknownst to her, that friend had been hatching a plot with an accomplice to cash stolen checks. They asked Contessa to do them a favor — deposit a check into her bank account, then withdraw the money as soon as the check cleared. Contessa says she was naive and followed the instructions unwittingly.
Then, one day she noticed her account balance was suddenly a few thousand dollars in the red – the result of the bank trying to rectify the misappropriation. When she called the bank, they told her she had three days to repay the stolen money or face prosecution. Contessa tried to explain that she was unaware that she was committing a crime. But the bank’s surveillance footage had her dead to rights, depositing the check and later retrieving the money.
Contessa went to confront her friend about the scheme. But the woman had changed the locks on the apartment and refused to speak to her. She had packed Contessa’s possessions in garbage bags and tossed them off a sixth-floor balcony.
Contessa, who was still under probation from the arson case, found herself homeless again and on the run from the law.
She soon met a man who let her stay with him. But he quickly became domineering, taking advantage of the fact that Contessa’s outstanding arrest warrant precluded her from finding her own job or even getting a driver’s license. Within four years, they had two children together and lived with his parents.
Contessa was rarely allowed to leave the house without him by her side, and his mother advised Contessa to follow his orders.
When Contessa could stand it no longer, she packed up the kids, dropped them off at a friend’s house and turned herself in to the police.
She spent several months in jail as her case was resolved. She pleaded guilty to theft and was sentenced to another year of probation.
Free from the oppression of her ex-boyfriend and having paid her debt to society, she worked sporadically for a catering company and for fast food restaurants until she had saved a bit of money. Then she piled her kids on the RTA bus and rode out to a used car lot on the city’s West Side, where she laid down her $3,000 income tax refund in exchange for her first car.
A life in public housing
Contessa moved with her kids, Princeton and Queen Ona to Garden Valley Estates, which, at the time, was a privately operated low income housing complex. (The Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority took over the property in 2010 and renamed it Heritage View Homes.)
The eight years they spent there were perilous. She remembers the neighborhood filled with juveniles who had nothing to do. Violent altercations between adults occurred daily. Drug use was rampant. Windows were shot out. Thieves broke into their neighbors’ homes.
Contessa gave birth to King, who came along after a brief reconciliation with her ex. And another short-lived romantic relationship yielded Contessa’s fourth child, Princess, two years later. The relationship was a mistake, but not the child, she says.
When CMHA offered Contessa a chance to get out of Garden Valley she took it, even though her next stop would be King Kennedy, another public housing complex just a mile away. It felt like an upgrade. Here, she found hardworking families and single mothers, like herself, trying to make ends meet and protect their children from the negativity of their environment.
Through the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, Contessa began taking courses related to the construction trades at Cuyahoga Community College. But an apprenticeship was required for enrollment in Tri-C’s cement masonry program. And Contessa, who was the only woman in the class, says she was overlooked for those opportunities.
For years, Contessa worried that her criminal history would prevent her from finding a good job. She was too afraid of rejection to even try until two years ago, when a friend, who works for a company that provides low-income housing for senior citizens, finally persuaded Contessa to apply for an opening, helping out on a temporary construction project.
Contessa went for it – and got the job. When the temporary work concluded, the company kept her on in environmental services.
Today, she says she loves the company and her supervisor, a woman who sympathizes with the demands of being a single mom. But Contessa makes just $12.36 an hour – a gross income of about $25,700 a year. That’s $3,000 below the federal poverty level for a family of five. And recently, a modest raise made her ineligible to receive food stamps.
The two men who fathered her children owe her tens of thousands of dollars in child support. She says she won’t hold her breath.
The older kids’ father sometimes remembers to call them on their birthdays. But he knows less and less about them as the years pass. When he called Princeton on his 12th birthday, he thought his son was still in the fourth grade.
Since the family moved to King Kennedy, Contessa says she has altogether sworn off romantic relationships.
“I don’t have time for it,” she says. “I don’t want to be used. And men just want you to take care of them. But you’re not about to drive my car. You’re not about to take my check, and you’re not about to move in with us and eat up the little bit of food we got. That’s just how my mindset is.”
Contessa prides herself on her resourcefulness that allows her to meet her kids’ needs, while also having a little leftover for birthday celebrations, some nice clothes and family trips to theme parks. Little pleasures that bring joy to an otherwise dismal landscape.
She also manages to carve out family time every week. Lately the whole family, including Contessa, has been taking swimming lessons together at the YMCA.
Unlike many of the single moms around her, who have called King Kennedy home for their entire lives, Contessa knows there is more. She wants it for her children. She wants them to graduate at the top of their high school class, to go to college, to leave Cleveland and see the world.
She also wants to move out of public housing eventually. But it will take time, she says.
“Even with the decent job I have, I don’t have money to pay rent,” she says. “Where will I find a five-bedroom where I pay $300 or $400 a month? I won’t.”
When asked where she would like to live, Contessa – who, only minutes earlier, said she never cries — begins to weep.
“It makes me emotional sometimes when I think about that,” she says. “I don’t know. Just somewhere where the lawns are manicured, and you can just go outside and be peaceful and sit on the porch. And you don’t have to worry about nobody riding down the streets, shooting, or kids looking at what your kid’s got on, so they can break in when you leave. … I don’t know.”
A Greater Cleveland is a project of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. See the entirety of our project by clicking here.
A Greater Cleveland is a call to action to the community to help identify and remove the barriers to success faced by Cleveland children in poverty. For those moved to make donations, we ask that you consider a gift to the United Way of Greater Cleveland, which is focusing on issues of multigenerational poverty that this series will examine. Because of the sensitive family matters discussed in this series, we have provided the people we write about anonymity and are using pseudonyms to identify them.