The Christmas gift
of a fresh start

In this hopeful season, we share five stories of those who found their way back from loss and isolation
Illustrated by Katherine Brickman

All year long, there are so many bad endings. Things happen — fires, firings, failures. It can all be too much. But few stories end in the valleys where they first came to our attention. People’s stories twist and meander and sometimes they plateau and sometimes they rise again.

At this time of year, when we choose to believe in goodness and possibility, if only for a few days, we offer five stories of fresh starts. These are the lives of five people whose trajectories were interrupted by cruel fate. They got burned out of their home. They had nowhere to call their own. They lost their connection to the people they cherished. They became invisible to those around them. The music in their lives was silenced.

And then they started again.

These are not stories of miracles. No one here dances through the meadows, travail turned to triumph. Rather, these are people determined to restore dignity, driven to begin anew.

We start with a 10-year-old girl who doesn’t have to say “No” anymore when her friends ask, “Can I come over to your house?” We end with the tale of a couple whose things were reduced to ash, but who held fast to each other. In between, there are stories of people who took control, found kindness and sang their song once more — in a season of possibility, five fresh starts.

A 5th grader’s holiday key

A good day, in the words of D.C. resident Kamiyah Johnson, age 10.

Last week, my mom was crying. But this time it was happy crying, because a woman was giving her a key. The woman said, “You deserve this.”

She said that because we’re living in the hotel. Except it wasn’t a hotel, it was a shelter.

It had a lot of people, and in the hallways, it smelled like feet. And weed. It had a playroom, but it was for small babies. I could go in the parking lot, but I stayed in my room and I watched TV and drank juice and did nothing.

I am in the 5th grade. We are reading “Wonder.” My school was an hour away from the hotel, on the bus. My friends said, “Can I come over to your house?” I said no. I didn’t say why.

At night, we had to be in our room by 9 ’cause that is when the guard comes. My mom slept with my twin baby brother and sister in one bed and she gave me the other. For dinner, we ate Checkers or KFC. Or frozen dinners. Or sometimes my mom said, “Sorry, we’re having sandwiches.”

I said, “That’s ok.”

I say that a lot.

I said it last year at Christmas because my mom couldn’t get me presents.

But this year, we got the key right before Christmas. And the key was to our new apartment. We came in, and it had no type of smell or nothing and I said, “I am going to like this place.”

I might have a sleepover here where we could get our nails painted. I can dance and sing here, like Cardi B. We don’t have furniture except beds, but I get a bunk bed and I get to sleep in the top bunk.

My mom works at — Mom, what’s it called? — the Post Office. She gets off at 12 in the morning. It is seasonal, which means in January she is going to need a new job. But this job pays good, so when we moved in, she went to the thrift store. She got:

One pan

One pot

Two forks

Two spoons

One big dish

And then, she cooked lasagna with red sauce. We sat on the floor and we ate it, my mom, my brother, my sister and me.

— Jessica Contrera

Freed from the feed

Early 2005:

Michael Lampert is . . . a student at the University of Arizona when he joins an early version of Facebook. “It felt very cool, very hip, very exclusive,” he says. Inspired by the automatic header for his posts — “Michael Lampert is . . . ” he writes “silly anecdotes and ridiculous things” about college life.

Mid-2008:

Michael Lampert is . . . a recent graduate in the middle of the Great Recession. He struggles to find work and moves home to the suburbs of Chicago. Facebook provides a distraction and a connection to far-off friends. “There was still this sense of happiness that I could go and log on and reignite old memories,” he says.

Spring 2012:

Michael Lampert is . . . a newcomer in fast-changing San Francisco. He endures rising rents and a difficult job in advertising. A layoff looms, unknown to him. Facebook becomes a way to keep track of new friends amid the upheaval. “It helped me build the social circle that I have now,” he says.

Summer 2018:

Michael Lampert is . . . thriving in Oakland. Engaged to be married, he receives congratulations on Facebook. The platform feels different since the 2016 election. A friend’s decision to delete his account has made him think: “The people I had this artificial sense of relationship with online — how important is it that I maintain that? If I actively care about them, do they actively care about me?”

Late November:

Michael Lampert is . . . about to be an ex-user of Facebook. He publishes his last post, urging friends to stay in touch by phone and email. “Most people were like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool, good for you,’” he says. But weeks later, few of his old contacts have reached out. “I feel like my perspective on social media is very much in the minority,” he says.

Now:

Michael Lampert is . . . not interested in returning to Facebook. He is pursuing a career in human resources, hoping to make corporate workplaces more humane. He doesn’t think social media is evil, but its ubiquity still has him thinking. “I’m moving more toward a sense of being in the moment,” he says.

— Elise Viebeck

Lift every voice

Al McCray was nervous as he stood alone onstage. He hadn’t practiced in a while and thought he might forget the words.

A lifelong vocalist and devoted member of the D.C. Black Workers Center Chorus, McCray hadn’t sung since fire ravaged his apartment building, ruining all the equipment he’d used to make music. Two electric pianos, amplifiers, guitars, microphones, tape recorders — all destroyed.

“I lost everything,” he said. “But I got my life. I thank God I have that.”

McCray, who is 69, was one of the 160 or so residents displaced after the Arthur Capper Senior Public Housing complex in Southeast Washington burned for two straight days in September. The things he cherished — family photos, African art, memorabilia from his past — were gone for good. He salvaged only his brother’s ashes and his album collection.

McCray grew more depressed during his temporary stay in a hotel, faced with constant reminders of what he no longer had: When his beard grew ragged, he realized his hotel room wasn’t equipped with clippers or scissors.

“I had three pairs in my apartment,” he recalled. “I don’t have a basic pair of scissors to cut my beard.”

He sought therapy as his frustration mounted and his mood soured. He would walk by the burned Arthur Capper building and look into his old window from the street. McCray swore he could see his stuff inside. He was desperate to go inside and assess the damage to his apartment.

He was prescribed medication for high blood pressure.

When McCray moved into a new apartment this month, he thought about what it would take to re-create his old layout. He purchased a few items to begin furnishing the place, but so much was lacking.

The walls were barren. He hadn’t yet received basics like a dresser, lamps or silverware, things that would be supplied later by the management company that oversaw the senior housing complex.

“I just don’t have that foundation anymore,” he said.

Rebuilding would take time. He still didn’t have his music.

But when a member of the Black Workers Center Chorus came calling about a show this month, McCray decided it was time to be there for his a cappella group.

Standing before about a hundred people, McCray didn’t need instruments to “Lift Every Voice.” His solo in the James Weldon Johnson composition, which is often called the black national anthem, was but one verse. Freed from thinking about what he’d lost, McCray found his voice once again.

Lift ev’ry voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise, high as the list’ning skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

— Michael Brice-Saddler

When you’re smiling

Kimberly Latham wasn’t a kid at the bus stop; she was a parent. Still, the middle school girls whispered her way, then snickered, until finally her 13-year-old son mumbled, “Mom, will you just drive me to school today?”

It took a lifetime of bad luck and serious neglect to leave Latham a 31-year-old with no teeth, resigned to a life of shocked stares, soft foods and mangled speech.

Any pain was more bearable than the decades of decay that had emptied her jaws. She’d heard it all, even the shopper who asked if she was “retarded” when he couldn’t understand her in the Fort Belvoir, Va., commissary where she stocks shelves.

But when her two boys were embarrassed, her make-the-best-of-it grit crumbled like another ruined molar. “They’re so protective of me,” she said.

Latham’s tortured oral history began in Florida, where she grew up with no dad and crowded teeth. By the time she was 9, crooked canines made her “vampire girl” at school.

She got braces, but at 16 she landed in juvenile detention, where they pulled her wires for security reasons, leaving just the brackets. It would be three more years, some of them spent homeless, before she had those pried off by a dentist who insisted she sign a waiver releasing him from responsibility for the results. Most of her teeth cracked in the chair; some broke outright.

The 11 years of abscesses and infection that followed were the final undoing of her mouth. Her cheeks caved. Her speech sagged. Even macaroni was agony to eat by the time she went to Les Ratner, an Alexandria dentist, early this year. He explained the cost of implants to the single mom with no high school diploma, no insurance and no money.

Ratner’s wife and office manager overheard her crying.

“There might be another way,” Susan Ratner said.

It was a long shot, but a local oral surgeon, Snehal Patel, was offering a free rehab job, $60,000 worth, to a needy person who submitted a compelling essay. Latham wrote five pages; Susan typed it up.

Patel said it was her courage that blew him away.

Four days before Christmas, Patel installed 12 implant posts in her upper and lower jaws and then attached a complete set of permanent, custom-formed replacement teeth donated by a local lab.

It took about seven hours to unwind half a lifetime of pain and shame. And now, Kimberly Latham is presenting, literally, a new face to the world.

She’ll get that steak she’s been dreaming of for years, face a camera without covering her mouth, enter a room with her head high.

“I’m going to walk into work grinning from ear to ear.”

— Steve Hendrix

Ashes in the wind

He’d passed the exploding trailers, the scorched husks of abandoned cars, the blazing rows of bushes that made the cat mewl and cower. But midway through his escape from Paradise on Nov. 8, something made Mark Velasquez stop the car, strap on a respirator and go back to try to save his home.

Maybe it was the weight of things he knew couldn’t be replaced or the stress of having to rebuild. Or maybe it was the pain of losing a dream finally within reach: His fiancee, Carol Anderberg, was weeks away from finishing nursing school in San Francisco. They were supposed to begin their life together in his little white house, nestled in the pines, with its lemon tree and chicken coop and redwood porch. She’d already started moving in her things.

For a few surreal hours, Velasquez, 44, a minister, sat in the stillness of his kitchen as the fire crept closer. He prayed his home would be spared. There was no cell service, no water, no electricity. He made a cup of coffee on a camp stove and focused on the birds chirping outside. When spot fires erupted in the yard, he tried to douse them with pitchers of water.

“That’s when the thought bubbled up that this might all be futile,” Velasquez said.

When he saw the wall of flame crest the hill behind his house, he knew it was over. He scrambled to grab a few mementos, including a birthday card Carol had made him, and fled in his van as the flames closed in, the sky growing black around him.

In a sermon three days after the fire, Velasquez described how, when he was growing up, his parents would take the family up to the mountains in Sonora. He was transfixed by the landscape. Looking out the window on the drive home, he’d promise himself he’d live someday among towering redwoods and red dirt.

It was only months before the fire, he said, that he realized his dream had come true.

There is little left of Paradise now. The hospital where Anderberg, 41, planned to work is gone. Velasquez has gotten by through the grace of friends, sleeping on couches, struggling to find housing in nearby Chico, which is overrun with people trying to start over after the fires. If they can’t find a place, Velasquez might have to leave his job.

Anderberg wrote an appeal on GoFundMe.com, seeking help to pay for a place where the couple might “start our life together.”

Some things cannot be replaced, but some things even fire cannot take. Anderberg graduated this month. They will marry next year. Beneath the ash, the dirt in Paradise is still red.

— Taylor Telford

Credits: By Jessica Contrera, Elise Viebeck, Michael Brice-Saddler, Steve Hendrix and Taylor Telford. Designed by Mia Torres. Illustrated by Katherine Brickman.