By Leila Atassi
Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Columnist Leila Atassi shares the story of a Cleveland woman who owns a boutique. But this isn’t your ordinary story about a boutique owner. This entrepreneur’s strength to survive is truly inspiring.
Carly Jones steps into her fashion boutique on Madison Avenue in Lakewood, flips on the lights, draws up the mini-blinds and takes a deep breath.
She props open the door and cues up some hip-hop music, hoping it will find its way to the street and entice passersby to stop in.
She contemplates whether her inventory, which she describes as urban fashion, will appeal to suburban customers.
She wonders what else she could offer them or how in the world she would acquire it. Every last penny to her name — everything she is — already is invested here.
For Carly, this is sacred ground. This is where dreams crystallize. This is where she plans to prove to her two young daughters that a girl from one of Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods can overcome anything, can discover her potential and become somebody special.
Carly is an entrepreneur, a mother, a survivor, a woman of faith, a girl from “Down the Way.”
All of those identities converge in this place. And so she hangs the Open sign and waits — even if not a single soul walks through that door today or this week — because she wants her girls to know that where they come from is only part of their story.
Carly grew up in Cleveland’s Outhwaite Homes public housing complex, where she regularly witnessed shootings and saw dead bodies. But her strongest memories of the place focus on the tightly bonded community and the sense of pride she felt in being from “Down the Way,” a nickname coined in the 1960s for the Central neighborhood, which also included the Longwood Apartments and King Kennedy public housing projects.
Despite her impoverished surroundings, Carly was a happy child, who aimed to get good grades, attend church and make her mom proud.
Then, at 9 years old, Carly discovered that the woman who had been raising her was not her mother, but her great aunt. Her real mother was a woman she had always known just as a family friend. She lived in Garden Valley estates, a notoriously dangerous low-income housing complex that Carly had always referred to as “Death Valley.”
Carly was the third child born to her biological mother, who was 19 years old at the time and felt utterly overwhelmed by motherhood. So she agreed to let her aunt, who had always wanted to have a child, adopt the infant when she was a month old. Carly’s biological mother went on to have four more children for a total of seven, all of whom she raised, but Carly.
Carly learned all of this when she was visiting with the children, who turned out to be her siblings, and one of them blurted out the truth.
Once Carly became aware of her biological family, her mom (like Carly, we refer to her great-aunt as her mom) required her to spend time with them. However, Carly essentially was being raised as an only child and never felt like she fit in with the half-dozen siblings she suddenly was forced to embrace. They saw her as an outsider, too, and often teased her in mean-spirited ways.
Carly remembers that, during weekend visits, her siblings would take and hide her earrings and other items that her mom had bought for her. On one occasion, when she was 11 years old, they took all of her clothing from her overnight bag and refused to return it. Carly was fed up, so she walked alone two miles down Kinsman Road and Woodland Avenue to get home. Her mom was so angry she gave her a “whooping,” then drove her right back to finish her visit.
For Carly, at an already tender age, the news of her true identity was a devastating revelation — one that triggered a deep depression that persisted for years. To cope, she turned to food and struggled with her weight early in life.
And throughout adolescence Carly carried with her a simmering anger that manifested in aggression toward others.
Carly was a fighter — a good fighter, at that. Any minor slight could flip a switch in her that would unleash a torrent of rage. The bridge of her nose sports a faint scar where she was punched by another girl, who was wearing heavy rings on her fingers.
But Carly says that in school she maintained high grades and the respect of her teachers, who knew the scrappy girl they saw was not a reflection of her true self. So despite her aggression, Carly was the beneficiary of second and third chances.
By the time she graduated from East Tech High School, Carly already had a handful of college credits to her name.
She moved out of her mom’s home and in with a friend in Garden Valley. She began taking classes toward an associates’ degree in criminal justice studies, which included coursework in private investigation and court reporting.
Life takes a turn
Then, Carly fell for a handsome older man from the Dominican Republic. And at 22 years old, she found out she was pregnant with her oldest daughter, Michaela.
The relationship was fleeting, though. And when she was six months pregnant, she met and fell in love with another man, Richard. This one, she thought, was a keeper. He was spiritual, a churchgoer, like herself. And he was committed to her. He accompanied Carly to all of her remaining prenatal appointments, and after Michaela was born, Richard became a doting step-father.
About two years later, Carly gave birth to her second daughter, Ruby.
But then Carly suffered a crushing loss. Her older brother, Thomas, was murdered — shot in the head at close range by a longtime friend, who had accepted $1,500 to kill him.
Carly says her brother was no angel, and that getting into trouble was a natural progression for so many who grew up in the projects, let alone notoriously dangerous Garden Valley. But Thomas was the only one of her six siblings who ever spent time with her and checked in to make sure she was alright. And suddenly, Carly felt very vulnerable and alone in the world.
Shortly after Thomas’ death, Carly’s relationship with Richard unraveled. He had changed and become violent — beating her with regularity, sometimes in front of Michaela, who would cower and hide.
For two years, every violent incident ended in reconciliation. Then, one day, when Carly returned from Christmas shopping, she spotted Richard getting out of another woman’s car and trying to sneak into the house without her noticing.
Carly chased down the car. She told the woman to take Richard with her, because he was no longer welcome in Carly’s home. When Carly opened her front door, she was met by the barrel of a handgun.
Carly was numb, frozen at gunpoint, as the scene played out on her front lawn and bystanders began to gather. She thought about running, but knew the gun was loaded. Death seemed unavoidable. A neighbor finally called police, and Richard was arrested. He eventually pleaded guilty to aggravated menacing and gun charges and spent two years in prison.
When Carly reflects on that time in her life, she feels a mixture of resentment, anger, embarrassment and also gratitude for having survived it. But most of all, she is fearful that the violence that took place before little Michaela’s eyes will haunt her into adulthood.
Making tough decisions
Through it all, Carly had toiled to complete her associate’s degree. Then, on the very day she achieved it — more bad news. Her mom, who had been diagnosed with a degenerative kidney disease when Carly was in high school, was ailing. Carly decided to become trained to provide in-home health care and began working full-time, caring for her mother.
By this point, Carly and her girls had moved many times — alternating between crashing with friends and living in public housing, Outhwaite and Longwood Apartments.
With stable income, she decided it was time for her girls to have a home of their own. In 2012, she applied and was accepted to a rent-to-own program through CHN Housing Partners, formerly the Cleveland Housing Network. CHN built her family a four-bedroom colonial in a square-mile area of Central with hundreds of new houses, known as the Villages of Central.
Carly had the keys to her new home for a month before she could muster the nerve to move her family into it. The “what ifs” were paralyzing. What if one day her income is less stable and she can’t pay the bills? At least in public housing, rent is adjusted based on income. Could she manage without that safety net? She often would walk around the empty house and, filled with anxiety, return to her apartment at Longwood.
Finally, Carly could avoid it no longer. It was time to move. Carly says she never looked back.
To be her own boss
Living on her own, Carly’s ambition to be her own boss began to rise to the surface. She decided to launch an online store, which she called BeautifullyFearlessFashion.com, to sell clothes and sunglasses. The business fizzled and left her with a rack of outdated clothing and stressed credit.
Carly then connected with an acquaintance who had an eye for fashion, a flare for promotion and a serious interest in opening a brick-and-mortar store. The two agreed to become equal partners. They started looking for the right location, eventually settling on a storefront on Madison Avenue in Lakewood.
But on the day after Carly learned that they had been approved for the lease, she discovered that her mom’s condition was terminal.
Her health went downhill quickly. Carly spent every moment she could, caring for her mom at her bedside, at home and then at University Hospital. Her mom wished aloud that she would make it to Carly’s grand opening, that she would live to walk through that door and see her daughter tending to her customers. She made Carly promise that she would let nothing stand in the way of her dream to make this business work.
Then, one evening, before Carly left the hospital, her mom gathered her strength, hugged her so tightly and said, “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
She died that night.
Seeing the rainbow
With all of her savings and her mom’s modest life insurance pay-out, Carly and her business partner opened the doors of Level Up Boutique this past April.
Carly, who now works as a health aide for a homebound elderly woman, divides her time between that job, the shop and, of course, her daughters.
Michaela and Ruby are now 10 and 8 years old.
Carly brings them to the boutique whenever she can. They make her laugh with the way they express their pride in her enterprise. They love to stand on the sidewalk and call out to passersby, encouraging them to take a peek
They have grown into sweet, respectful, fun-loving girls, who outwardly seem impervious to the challenges their mother has faced or the hurdles that still stand before their small family.
Carly prefers it that way. In fact, some days, when she steps into her shop, turns on the lights and hangs that Open sign, she, too, feels as hopeful as a child.
“As long as I am focused on building something for my kids, that’s all I need right now,” Carly says. “I’ve been through so many heartbreaks, I just know how to get over it. Sometimes you’ve got to go through the heartbreak to see the rainbow.”
(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.)