"Thank you, Julia Greeley, you were a light for me when I could not see the way!"
The words are like Sylvia Bailey herself -- spontaneous, spirited, luminous. Sylvia graduated from the Julia Greeley Home program in 2014, and shortly afterwards spoke at a workshop about her success. The Julia Greeley program had helped her achieve independence. She was in her own apartment and managing her own life.
Now Sylvia had a plan. She wanted to share the light that she had found at Julia's: “I want to volunteer,” she said. “When can I start?”
We were thrilled. Who better to explain Julia’s program than Sylvia? She was charismatic, eloquent and eager. She could explain Julia’s program “from the inside out,” because she believed that her time at Julia’s had revitalized her life journey. Now she wanted to tell others.
We were making plans to have Sylvia join us when, a few weeks later, we received devastating news. Sylvia had died suddenly from a burst aneurysm suffered at her home. This vital woman, sparkling as a firecracker, had suddenly been called to eternal life.
Sylvia's Story: Hardship, joys and inspiration
Who was Sylvia? A few weeks before her death, she sat down to sharel her life story and what led her to the Julia Greeley Home. Her life reflects the unique ways homelessness can come upon a woman of any background or age. Sylvia had been an educated, hardworking career woman before traumatic events obscured her path.
She was born in 1951 in Denver. Her father was an Army veteran, her mother, a stay at home mom.
“I was born sickly, and wasn’t expected to live past age six,” Sylvia said. “I had a speech impediment and a rheumatic heart, and that kept me out of school for a year.”
From age 8 to 18, Syvia went to live with her grandparents. “That was lovely,” she remembered. “that’s where I found peace and love and security. I felt I was protected.”
Sylvia’s childhood memories included exploring her grandparents’ garden, collecting tomatoes and cucumbers and learning from her grandmother how to “pickle and dill.” She played with her nine cousins and climbed her favorite apple tree. She attended and was baptized at Sacred Heart Parish in lower downtown and sang in the Sacred Heart choir.
“It’s Julia Greeley’s parish!” she said, referring to our patron, the incomparable woman whose death in 1918 drew a reported 1,000 mourners. “It’s like I already knew this lady!”
Life gets complicated
Adulthood came fast. Sylvia had a baby girl, and realized she better get serious about her future. She didn’t waste any time: She attended Barnes Business School, Community College of Denver and Emily Griffith Opportunity School (now Emily Griffith Technical College). What followed was a very good job with the regional office of the Federal Communications Commission in Denver.
Those productive years brought other things, including marriage and another baby, a son. She moved up the busness ladder, working for some of the grand old names of the telecommunications industry: Mountain Bell; U.S. West ….
Yet dark clouds were gathering: Sylvia said she became a victim of domestic violence, and that she slid into substance abuse in order to escape. “My spirit knew it wasn’t right,” Sylvia recalled. “What I was doing to my body wasn’t right.”
In the early 1990s, Sylvia went into treatment and got sober. She bought a home and eventually other properties. But life was getting very complicated: Sylvia had ended up with grandchildren to support, and other family members needed her help, too. The financial pressures multiplied and cascaded and became overwhelming.
By 2013, Sylvia was living with a family member in a housing complex that she said was overrun with drugs and violence.
“Lord, help me get out of that!” she recalled praying. In desperation, she put in an application at Samaritan House, the homeless shelter run by Catholic Charities of Denver. “When they told me there was a bed, it was like, ‘Thank you Lord!” said Sylvia. “Now I won’t have to smell marijuana and wake up bleeding.”
Samaritan House, a temporary shelter which is part of our social services network, called us. Did we have room at the Julia Greeley Home for another resident? Yes, we did. Sylvia, with a laugh, recalled her reaction:
“Would I like to interview with Julia Greeley? Sure! I’m on my way!”
'I am home'
“When I walked in that door -- ahh .... it was like a choir of angels started up,” Sylvia recalled. “It was that special. It was like everything that happened before fell off of me. Yes! I had made it. I am home.”
Sylvia plunged into the Julia Greeley program. She applied for jobs and researched apartments. She found a part-time job at Dollar Tree. When she reached age 62 she learned she would be eligible for a senior living arrangement, and soon found one.
While at Julia’s, Sylvia re-discovered the joys of family life, both practical and emotional. She loved the shared cooking duties atJulia’s and discovered that she was a motivating force for the other, younger residents.
“I think my background and experience was a help to those who were unfortunate,” she recalled in 2015. “Women who are mistreated, beaten or pregnant, they have no one to turn to. Well, I’ve been there, done that, so I could help.”
That was Sylvia's spirit was when she passed away -- in an attitude of joy, gratitude and eagerness. Even though Sylvia can no longer share her story in person, we hope it will inspire other women to keep working toward their goals like Sylvia did, no matter what the obstacles.