Ladies!! I am two months in to the Kickass Single Mom Grant project (I grant $1,000 monthly to a mom who is doing incredible things — whether in business, community service, her family, politics, the arts … essentially a mom who is awesome and inspires me). I am honored to have received more than 1,600 applicants, heard so many amazing stories from 1,600+ gorgeous moms, I have to tell you — I'M OVERWHELMED! Talk about Sophie's Choice …
This month's winner jumped out with her candor, remarkable story, and positive attitude. She wrote:
My name is Shawnta Creech and I'm a kick*ss mommy! In 2009, I was a homeless mother of two, living in the one of the worst shelters in Washington, D.C. That year, after being homeless and not receiving proper treatment for severe asthma, I went into complete respiratory failure and underwent emergency tracheostomy surgery. Doctors told me I would be in the hospital for six months before they even began to consider taking me off life support… but this momma is a fighter. I had to get back to my babies. After only ONE month, I was released from Washington Hospital, and I have been fighting ever since.
With God at the head of my life, and my support system by my side (my daughters), I have managed to pursue my dreams of becoming a chef, and will successfully complete the culinary arts program at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School here in DC. Serving and blessing people through food is a true passion of mine. I have a following of people who have fallen in love with a delicious chipotle salad dressing/marinade that I have developed. Even my chef instructor and his chef wife who co-own a successful delicatessen are in love this my dressing. He truly believes in me and has suggested that I look into getting my dressing bottled and in production, as well as granted me use of the school's commercial kitchen for production.
My goal is to see my dressing in stores. I would use this blessing to apply for the necessary trademarks, and licensing from D.C. Then, if there was anything left over, I would take my babies out for a “fancy” meal. Those two little princesses have had to sacrifice sooo much because of my health issues, and they never complain. I don't have the monetary funds to buy them the newest or the most expensive things, but they genuinely appreciate what they have. They are my BIGGEST cheerleaders, this legacy I am building is for them. The day the doctors had to give me this trach, it was their little faces I saw, it was them that I held onto. They believe in me, and I know that this dressing is our ticket to a better life.
BAM! You get $1,000!
Have a listen to the podcast interview in which Shawnta tells me about how she went from a middle-class government worker, to homeless single mom of two babies, first living with relatives, then in shelters, for years before her near-death health crisis snapped her into action to making a better life for her family. Today Shawnta and her daughters live in safe apartment, she will graduate with her culinary degree next month, scoring 97 percent and higher on all tests, and missing only one day of class. I love how she speaks so passionately about the people along her journey who supported her in small and large ways, and most especially about how passionately and lovingly she speaks about FOOD!
I asked her by email to share about her kids. This is what she wrote:
Niya, 12, is so creative and helpful. Her confidence is amazing! I can remember being so insecure in middle school, especially 7th grade, but not her. Unlike most girls her age, she actually acts like a 12 year old, lol. She isn't into being grown or acting “fast,” as we call it. She loves writing music, she wants to learn piano, loves creating fashionable clothes for her dolls. She likes Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Princess movies and she will read almost any novel she can get her hands on. She is doing great… thriving. She's a tough cookie, a kickbutt kid.
Kira, 11, is my outspoken songbird. She has the most amazing singing voice. Her teacher overheard her singing and suggested she tryout for the upcoming talent show. She did, and yesterday we found out she made it! She is such a sweetheart, and she wears her heart on her sleeve. She is so caring, even those “$0.40 a day can save a child” commercials can sometimes bring her to tears. At the same time, she is so spunky. She loves STEM, and Legos are LIFE for her. My love for cooking has rubbed off on her also, she aspires to be a chef/singer/veterinarian/meteorologist, lol. She's doing great, full of life. She too is a tough cookie, a kickbutt kid :)
In the application, Shawnta said she “would ultimately like to open a restaurant where I can offer meaningful internships to young culinarians, helping the future generations of chefs get their foot in the door.”
In the application, Shawnta said she “would ultimately like to open a restaurant where I can offer meaningful internships to young culinarians, helping the future generations of chefs get their foot in the door.”
Past Kickass Single Mom Grant winners:
Tanai Benard: Helping Hurricane Harvey victims
Erin Williamson: Entrepreneur works for global gender equity
Jennifer Little, founder of the Little Hands Book Bank in Texas.
Shawnta Creech went from homeless to culinary school graduate with a salad dressing business in the works.
Sheri Hopkins started Black San Diego. “I wanted my daughters to grow up seeing strong leaders who looked like them.”
Tiara Caldwell: A doula for low-income new mothers. “I wasn't going to let a corporation tell me what my dream was.”
Teri Teves: Supporting other women by building her small beauty business.
Apply for the Kickass Single Mom Grant now:
Full interview with Shawnta Creech, kickass single mom:
Emma: I’m so excited about today’s guest because this is my very second, only my second winner of the Kickass Single Mom Grant. I’m on a video Skype here and I can tell she’s getting a little shy, but it’s such a pleasure for me to be meeting with today’s guest. Shawnta Creech and she is a Washington, D.C. mom of two. She has this incredible story. She was homeless, incredible health problems, living in shelters, two little girls. Fast forward to today, she is about to graduate from culinary school and she is launching a food business which includes this amazing salad dressing marinade, which I want to hear about because everyone’s going bananas about it. She’s systematically taking steps to get it copyrighted, get all her business in line. She has secured kitchen space, but it takes money to make money and that’s what she’s hoping to use the grant for. More than that, she’s just this incredible woman. A gorgeous woman, a mom who is just taking herself from middle class to really total poverty and a near death health situation, to now being this budding entrepreneur in a brand new career.
What struck me most about her application is one, she has this very long story, but she was able to tell it very short and concisely. I’m here to tell you after reading 1,600 applications in two months, it’s hard to do and it’s a real gift. So, that really caught my attention. The energy that she had in her application was so fun to read and so positive. She didn’t dwell on her hardships. I’ll just tell you really quick, she starts it off with, “Hi I’m Jeralyn Creech and I am a kickass single mommy.” I like her already.
Shawnta thank you for being here.
Shawnta: Thank you.
Emma: In order to do the interview she had to steal back her earbuds from her kid because you know how it is with moms. Our kids are stealing our tech all the time.
I really just want you to take it from the top. You were working your own place, you’re a middle-class woman, you had a government job, and you were doing it.
Shawnta: Yes. Alone. You know.
Emma: What did you do? This was back in 2004? 2005?
Shawnta: Yeah, I actually worked downtown at the US Department of State in the passport office, passing passports. I made a decent salary as a single woman. I wound up with my first daughter, and lost my job, and turned out I lost my place.
Emma: Tell me what happened? How did you lose your job?
Shawnta: I worked overnight. Being a new mommy, having this little baby in the mornings trying to deal with her, and then I’m missing days and I’m feeling the guilt of being at work all night and just missing her. So, I’m lapsing on this day, and on that day, and then it just got to a point where I was just trying to be a mommy and juggle it and balance it and it just wasn’t working. So, they let me go.
Shawnta: Which was really difficult, because I needed that job to take care of her, but the job was taking me away from her.
Emma: Then where did you go. You lost your job, but then you lost your place.
Shawnta: Yes. I actually lost my place while I was on maternity leave and my insurance didn’t pay out. The rental company said 30 days to pay or you’re out. After that we went from my mom’s place to sister’s place, to Trent’s place, we stayed at the kid’s biological dad’s mom’s place, just bouncing around. Two months here, two months there. We had to live up to people’s patience when you’re staying with them. It’s like, okay, you’re here, so when are you leaving?
Emma: Because by this time you had two babies?
From middle class to homeless in 30 days
Shawnta: No, at this time I had one. I was pregnant with the second. We’re bouncing around and by the time I had my youngest daughter, she was sick and she wound up being in the hospital for two weeks with an infection. I was staying with my sister at the time. When she came home, my sister said two kids and the house is full, and I have a new baby and was like, “You’ve got to find somewhere else to go.” I wound up getting into a shelter which was Shepherd’s Cove. That’s the only family shelter in Maryland PG County and was there for another two months. Then we were in the Country Inn and Suites for a month, and motels for a month and after that, I ended up going to the women’s shelter at DC General for two weeks, then stayed one night in the family shelter in DC General, then I wound up getting into transitional. From there is where I started getting a footing to secure housing.
Emma: You were telling me a story about how when you were in the family shelter, and it was a situation where the women were in one part of the house and the kids were in another. So you weren’t even with your kids.
Shawnta: I wasn’t with my kids when I stayed in the women’s shelter, they actually stayed with their biological dad’s mom for those two weeks, which was rough because I was sick and I had double pneumonia and my asthma was out of control. I couldn’t get treatment. My breathing problems started in Shepherd’s Cove. They mix those chemicals and they make you clean with them. After that and smelling some sort of ammonia mixture, I just couldn’t breathe anymore. My health had to take a backseat because we don’t have anywhere to live. We had to keep moving. We were in that shelter and a church came and they talked to us, and sang with us, and ate with us. One of the ladies from the church she just came and she told me, “You’re gonna be alright. You’re gonna be fine.”I just held onto those words. It touched me somewhere deep where I felt alone.
One of the ladies from the church she just came and she told me, “You’re gonna be alright. You’re gonna be fine.”I just held onto those words. It touched me somewhere deep where I felt alone.
Shortly after that, I was out of that place and into a transitional housing on Park Road in northwest DC. We stayed there for a year. You’re only supposed to be there six months, but during that time I went into respiratory failure leading up from the scarring on my lungs from the chemicals at the shelter and constantly not being able to breathe. Everything compiled itself to me going into complete respiratory failure and being rushed to the hospital and having to get a tracheotomy surgery, emergency trache. When they were reviving me I blinked. I remember opening my eyes and the lady standing over me she’s screaming, “Can we give you this trache? Can we do this?” I just saw my kids faces and I remember saying, “Yes.” And blacking back out. I don’t remember anything after that.
That was in 2009 and I woke up to my family around me, crying. It’s just surreal. It’s eye opening. This would have been the end of me. I have to get myself together. I’m looking around at the doctors, and I’m on life support, and I just couldn’t believe that this is where my life had gone. I thought that it was over. I’ll never be chef. I can’t be a chef with a trache.
Emma: Had that been something you’d been dreaming about? Being a chef?
Shawnta: I actually developed a passion, my mom will tell you this joke, “I always thought you were going to be a hot dog person.” I would just cook hot dogs and chicken nuggets, I wasn’t the type of person to really cook. The passion grew when I was pregnant with my daughter and I was sitting up watching Rachel Ray and her 30-minute meals. Then when I was in the shelter in Shepherd’s Cove, I had to clean what was called the Mother’s Room. Every day at 7 pm, chef Robert Irvine was going. Dinner Impossible. He was making the impossible, possible. At my lowest point in the shelter, it just made me feel like, what’s impossible in my life is possible. I watched that show every week. To this day I still watch his Restaurant Impossible reruns, because the impossible is possible if you don’t give up. His cooking and his play of flavors, his knowledge, it just excited me in a way that nothing else had.
I had dreams of being a lawyer. It’s totally on the other end of the spectrum there. I just couldn’t wait to watch it. I couldn’t wait to see how he would manipulate those ingredients. Then I started playing around.
“When you’re in the shelter and eating shelter food that’s just disgusting, but I had dreams of preparing food that nourish the soul the same way that that church came and ate with us. Giving somebody something through food, just touching them and letting them know you care.”
Having a trache I thought it was gone. I thought everything I wanted in my life was gone. Laying in that hospital bed for a month. The doctor said, “You’ll be here six months before we think about taking you off this life support.” I was like, “What? I’m not going to be in here six months.” I was training myself, pulling myself up, moving my arms, and the nurses looked at me and said, “Ma’am, you have to lay down.” I had to get out of here, so after four weeks, I was gone. After four weeks, I was determined. They couldn’t justify sending me home, so they sent me to a rehab facility where I just stayed in there and played Bingo. That’s fine by me, as long as I’m making moves to get out of here, get home to my kids and get my life started.
Emma: That was a big turning point, right? At that time what kind of facility were you living in?
Shawnta: I was still living in the transitional housing.
Emma: Then what was next? What was the plan then, from there on out? How did you get to where you are now?
Shawnta: I came home. The day I came home was a Friday. That Saturday at maybe 7:00 in the morning, I was on the metro bus headed to go get my babies. They were staying with my aunt at the time. When I got them and we came back, people were like, “Oh my gosh is this the same woman?” When my respiratory system started failing, I was bedridden basically.
Emma: For a long time before you had your crisis?
Shawnta: Yeah. Walking was a tremendous burden. I would have to use a walker. After two months in the hospital, with a feeding tube up your nose, you lose weight. So, they were like, “Who is this woman?”
The first step was getting housing. I wound up being accepted into the mayor’s program for housing choice vouchers. I got a caseworker, the first caseworker that actually cared about me, Miss Shelly Watson. She worked with me hand in hand. She was putting on the boxing gloves. She was like, “Whatever Miss Creech needed she’s gonna get it.” She would view apartments, saying she wanted to put me somewhere nice. She knew what I had been through. I got out of the hospital May of 2010, I got my apartment June of 2010.
Emma: And that’s where you’re living right now?
Shawnta: No, we moved. They were slumlords, but it was still a step. The current apartment I’m living in I’m looking to move because it’s causing a strain on my health, with the allergies and everything, but we’re moving forward.
Emma: It’s your own spot. Is it a safe place that you’re living?
Shawnta: The safety isn’t the issue, it’s just the facility. The building is rundown, and it’s just time for us to go.
Emma: But it’s your own home?
Shawnta: Yes. We’ve never looked back. My caseworkers will tell you, Miss Creech is just not one of those people I have to worry about.
Emma: You’re in culinary school and you’re about to graduate, next month?
Emma: How did you do that? Tell me that story.
Shawnta: Well, I had always wanted to go to culinary school. I’m looking at them like, 40, 30, 50 thousand dollars, and none of them are close. I’m looking at the burden that would be on my kids, the sacrifice they would have to make with me going to a school far away. I’m just Googling and Googling, and I find a school that is in DC and tuition free. It seemed like, what? This is like heaven sent. So, on a whim, the registration was August 3rd and this was August the first, and I was like, I’m just gonna go.
Emma: Tell us the name. It’s called the Carlos Rosario—
Shawnta: The Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School. It is the only public charter school, I’m sure on the East Coast that offers the facilities and the type of the education that they offer.
Emma: But it’s a culinary school though?
Shawnta: They have a culinary program. They have an IT program. They have a nursing training program, a GEDs. It’s just all around adult education in several different fields.
Emma: Okay, awesome. But it’s not costing you anything?
Emma: What’s the experience been like going there?
Perfect attendance and all As
Shawnta: You know what? It’s been amazing. I’m trying not to cry. Because who would have ever thought something like that would exist? Somewhere, where I could go, and people don’t judge you. They just embrace you. I get up every day, I’m there every day. Until this last semester, I held a perfect attendance record. I got sick with my allergies and whatever else, but until this semester I held a perfect attendance record. I just wanted to be there every day.
Emma: You told me you haven’t less than, what’s your test scores been?
Shawnta: 97 percent passing on each class, the whole class. For each class, I haven’t gotten less than a 97 percent. I finished with a 99 percent the first semester.
Emma: That’s awesome. By the way, if you go on your Instagram and Facebook pages, you’re creating this gorgeous food. It’s like fancy-pants, where things are vertical up on the plate, and crazy stuff like that. But it’s healthy and it looks so amazing and delicious. When you talk about food there’s that passion that sparked your interest all those years ago. It’s still there.
Shawnta: Yes. I just want to give people something, that thing, you know? I’m tired of eating the same thing. Okay, well let me give you something to excite you. Let me give you something, a flavor that you haven’t had since you were a child. Or a combination that you’ve never imagined. Just good food. Nothing too adulterated, just good food. I just want to give people that. Just serve in the same way where the food and the love, where it touched me when I was in my lowest point. If you could just come and share in a good meal with me, while I’m living in this shelter, when my spirit is broken, and it can lift my spirits, then I want to give people that. It’s just my passion.
Emma: So, what are you doing? Tell me what’s your plan? How are you going to do that?
“This dressing is a blessing. It’s mine. I created it. I want to share it with people and I believe that it can create a legacy.”
Shawnta: This dressing, I call it my kickin’ chipotle dressing, I had developed this recipe in my house about three years ago, humbly. I didn’t think people would really feel this way about it. So I’m giving this stuff away for free. Someone gets a salad from me, I’m like, try this dressing. They’re like, “Whoa, okay I’ll buy a bottle of that.” I was like, no way. I’m on my chef track. I just gave them a bottle. His wife tried it and she’s an esteemed chef. They own a beautiful delicatessen here in D.C. and he’s like, “That stuff is amazing. You’re going to need to do this.” All of my family and friends are like, “Shawnta, what are you waiting for?” I didn’t believe. I didn’t really believe in it because it came by so humbly. Just another thing I’m whipping up in my kitchen. When I sat back and just prayed about it. You can’t keep asking for someone to save you, and they send you a boat and you keep saying I’m still waiting for someone to save me. Sometimes you’ve got to get on the boat. This dressing is a blessing. It’s mine. I created it. I want to share it with people and I believe that it can create a legacy. It can be the catalyst to send my career into the fast track forward. I want to have this thing developed and push my brand for it.
Emma: Right now, is it a catering company that you’re running also?
Shawnta: Yes, well it’s my own little, getting off the ground, boots to the ground thing. I have so many people who love to support it and order from it. My best friend, she gets all her coworkers and they just support it. They’re actually harassing her, where is Shawnta? I’m like, I’m sorry, I’m in school, I can’t. A lot of my friends, when they need something, I’m there. I’m right there. To cook, whatever you need, direct, at no cost. They know I’m there for them. Period.
Emma: But you’re just doing this sort of practice now until you graduate school and then you’re getting it off the ground. That’s the goal?
Shawnta: Yes. I’m actually a certified food protection manager, which is another notch on the belt. My hope is to apply for the licensing and the trademarking so that I can go forward professionally, in right standing with the laws of these. That’s my goal before I graduate. Before I graduate next month, I want to have those licenses. Even if it’s not all the way pushed through, I want to at least have applied for it.
Emma: Right, right. This is such a great story, and you know what I love? You shared in your application, you know how you want to use this grant to apply for trademarks and licensing, which I know is an expensive process. Then you said, “If anything is left over I want to take my babies out for a fancy meal.” Yes. Go. Where are you going to go? I want to know. Where is your favorite place?
Shawnta: I was thinking maybe like Cheesecake Factory. Where they can still recognize what’s on the menu, but kind of feel a little fancy. Somewhere other than Dave and Buster’s, where they always like to go. Somewhere where they can put on some casual clothes, or maybe, my daughter has expensive taste, so I might take them to a steakhouse. That kind of stuff. My oldest daughter really doesn’t care, she’s like, “Okay, whatever.” But the youngest is like, “Mom, can I order steak?” Those two little girls have sacrificed so much of their lives. They only know mommy dealing with health issues. They don’t remember what life was like before I got sick. There’s been times there’s just things we can’t do because mommy doesn’t feel good. They’ve been right there. Even the day I signed up for school. I wasn’t aware that it was a four-hour process, I thought it was maybe like, come between 9 and 1, and you’ll get seen and leave. But no, you had to be there from 9 all the way down to you finish. Those little girls were right there and they didn’t complain. They sat right there.
Emma: They were little because now they’re 11 and 12. You’re 33. You’ve lived like 12 lifetimes in not that many years.
Shawnta: They’ve sacrificed so much, so I want to just shower them with what they deserve. They deserve so much.
Emma: Part of this process I ask all of the applicants, how would you eventually like to pay this forward? I really liked what you said. You said ultimately you’d really like to open a restaurant where you can offer meaningful internships to young culinarians, helping the future generation of chefs get their foot in the door. Can I share with you what I’ve taken away from your story? One, shit can happen to anybody. Two, you can touch people in ways that you can’t expect. I was really touched by the story about the woman from the church that came into the shelter and just that one little interaction she had with you. She said, “You’re going to be okay.” She saw in you what you couldn’t see in yourself.
Shawnta: There it is. That’s exactly what it was.
Emma: That was such a powerful thing. That’s something amazing. We’re probably touching people in ways that we don’t even realize.
Shawnta: I can’t imagine. I’m like, it’s just me. I’m such a goofball. You don’t have to look like or be swallowed up by what you’ve been through.
Shawnta: I’m a goofball and people are like, “You’ve been through what?”
Emma: But I see in you something really interesting is that you both are a hustler and a hard worker and you’re very proud, but you’re also at the same time open to seeking out and accepting help. I think people either fall into one. Like they’re really needy and expect everyone to take care of them, or they’re so proud and independent that they can’t accept help. And we all need help at some point.
Shawnta: Yes, and I feel like any help given to me pushes me towards my goal of helping someone else and so on, and so on.
Emma: And helping your kids, and helping your family.
Shawnta: Yes. My daughter, she wants to be a chef now. She just cooked lunch today. She made spaghetti. She’s 11. Did it all by herself because she knew I didn’t feel good today. She jumped in and did it.
Emma: You’re doing good. Good mom.
Shawnta: Thank you.
Emma: Alright, well it’s totally my pleasure to support you, and all I ask is that you keep in touch and keep me posted. When you get that dressing, just send me a bottle. That’s it. That’s all I ask.
Shawnta: Absolutely. People are just so excited about it. I’m just like, “Huh?” But you know, okay.
Emma: But you’re listening. See, that’s an act of humility, is listening. Listening to others, listening to the universe, listening to the gifts. Everyone is telling you how great this dressing is, but also, your professor gave you the kitchen space. Right? That’s another message that you’re supposed to be doing this. Or, I know tomorrow, on Monday, you have a meeting with a trademark attorney about learning about the legal process. Everything’s just kind of like shoving you along, and you’re listening and submitting to all of that.
Emma: Well, it’s a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Shawnta: Thank you. I can’t even put into words how amazing this is. Kickass mom.
Emma: That’s us.
Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, noted blogger, and bestselling author. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.