The window was slightly ajar, creating just enough space for the 17-year-old girl to peek through and jump out into the darkness. Stephanie Silvers, student, couldn’t endure anymore on that January night two years ago in La Cygne, Kansas. She’d never felt this broken before, mentally or physically.
“It was the scariest point of my life,” Silvers said. “But when I looked through the window, I saw an opportunity to find a better life, a better opportunity.”
During the interview, Silvers pauses and collects herself for a minute. Nearly two years later, the memories of abuse, neglect and suffering still flash through the college student’s head.
“I’m sorry,” Silvers said. “I haven’t talked about my past to a lot of people.”
And for just over a year at the college, Silvers has kept quiet. She hasn’t discussed her past with any of the thousands of students who fill the college’s hallways daily, nor the dozens of classmates who learn alongside her each day.
As most of the students gather with their friends for lunch inside the food court, Silvers sits quietly in the corner, speaking candidly amid the commotion. Excited as she is to start a new semester, she can’t truly embrace where she’s going without remembering where she’s been.
Perhaps that’s why, as she leans back in a black cushion seat, Silvers decides to reflect on a journey that started well before she arrived in Overland Park, Kansas, as an 18-year-old – a journey filled with poverty, homelessness, heartache and fear. A journey, Silvers said, that started on the night she jumped through that window.
As Silvers grew up, her mother, Angela Miller, raised her until the age of six. However, Silvers’ relationship with her was cut short after the state of Kansas deemed Miller unfit to raise her children due to her mild form of autism. So, they took Silvers and her brother away.
“I still don’t know why they did it,” Silvers said. “Instead of helping her as an autistic parent, which there are a lot of, the state was very judgmental and decided to take [us] away from [her].”
From there, the Kansas Department of Family Services took Silvers in, eventually joining her with an adopted family in La Cygne, a northeast part of Linn County located in East Central Kansas.
Unfortunately, this is where Silvers’ misfortune began. After spending six years with a woman who cared for her deeply, Silvers spent the next 11 years stuck in an environment where she was beaten, humiliated and violated.
As she tells her story, Silvers gradually points to the parts of her body where her adopted parents struck her.
“The abuse was progressive,” Silvers said. “But as I grew older, they [adopted parents] harmed me in ways I didn’t think were possible.”
Silvers recalls moments where her adopted parents whipped belts and tree branches across her back, sometimes hard enough to form black and red gashes. Another example Silvers remembers is her adopted father shouting, “If you want to live under my roof, you have to live by my rules,” only seconds before her adopted mother slammed Silvers against the wall, punching her until welts appeared around her head.
“It was a traumatic experience,” Silvers said. “The worst part of it all was that my extended family ignored my cry for help. Whenever we were out in public, my [adopted] family acted normal. Everything was for show until we went inside those walls.”
Within the walls of her La Cygne bedroom, Silvers exchanged Facebook messages with a man she’d never met. She didn’t know it then, but this man would go on to help change the course of her life.
That man is Tim Nelson, a 50-year-old freight broker from Overland Park. Nelson’s relationship with Silvers initially started two years ago, stemming through a deep conversation about Shakespeare, education and religion.
“It was nothing more than that,” Nelson said. “We had a lot of really good discussions. It really wasn’t anything except she was wanting someone to talk to.”
For months, Silvers didn’t tell Nelson about her homelessness. As their relationship grew, their conversations slowly became deeper and more personal. Eventually, Nelson became aware of Silvers’ situation.
“As I started getting to know her better, that was when she really started telling me about her life,” Nelson said. “She told me about the abuse, the neglect, how she was barely surviving. It became clear she was living in a very controlled environment.”
The abuse and the perpetual battle with herself and her adopted family led her to jump through the bedroom window of her home on that eventful January night.
“I thought it was time to give it all up,” Silvers said. “My goal by running away was to separate myself from the situation — to find a better life.”
And so, Silvers did run away, to the streets of Kansas City. This is where Silvers’ homeless life started, and where Silvers first discovered the challenges of living on her own. For two and a half months, her time spent homeless involved “couch hopping,” or staying at various homes.
In addition, to keep herself from starving and freezing during the cold winter months, she went to Catholic Charities – a donation center within the Kansas City area, to obtain free food and clothes. Silvers was limited to only one trip every two weeks there, gathering a dozen food items every trip. The main foods she lived off of were bread, peanut butter, Ramon noodles, fresh fruit, vegetables and canned foods.
“[I ate] very simple foods,” Silvers said. “[Catholic Charities] did their best to provide the necessities for me.”
For the next three months, this was Silvers’ lifestyle, until she started applying to transitional homes for homeless kids. Then she discovered HALO, a transitional home for homeless girls in Westport, in March 2017. HALO is designed to house homeless girls for up to 18 months, teaching them skills to function once they’re set out in the real world or on their own again.
While there, HALO provided a room for Silvers to sleep in and three meals a day, as well a therapy counselor. Silvers, who had only attended public school up to sixth grade, was even given the opportunity to enroll in classes online. Throughout her stay at HALO, Silvers continued cultivating her relationship with Nelson.
However, her time with the organization lasted only one month. After several incidents between HALO and Silvers’ adopted mother, including reports of her harassing another girl, Silvers was kicked out of the program.
“I couldn’t trust anyone,” Silvers said. “This left me at a difficult point.”
So, just like she’d done so far, Silvers trudged onward. In July of 2017, she settled into a boarding house at the corner of Tracy Avenue in the Waldo District. However, the environment quickly became as toxic as the one she endured in La Cygne.
“There were gun shots every night,” Silvers recalls. “Triple-shootings were a common occurrence. I remember gang members coming into the rooms next door, dropping their guns and taking turns having sex with girls throughout all hours of the night. Every day I felt threatened. But I really didn’t have any other option. It was either go back to couch hopping or stay at a place where I didn’t know anyone well.”
This left Nelson no choice but to offer help.
“I reached out to her,” Nelson said. “I wanted to be a person she could trust.”
In time, what started out as allowing Silvers to crash for weeks at his Overland Park home and away from the horrors at Tracy Avenue eventually blossomed into a romantic relationship between the two. He helped find her a job at Crowd Systems, an event staffing and security company within the Kansas City Metropolitan area. Silvers still holds this job today.
“He pretty much gave me a voice,” Silvers said.
Several more months passed, and Silvers, who had just turned 18 and graduated from online high school, faced the decision of where to go next. She wanted to go to college, but didn’t know where.
Because Silvers qualified as an independent student, she entered the college scene with a laundry list of documentation concerns, such as proving she was living by herself, that she came from transitional housing and that she carried no dependents on her record.
“This made it difficult for her to receive financial aid,” Nelson said.
Fortunately, a campus adviser got word of Silvers’ financial constraints and offered her $300 in annual scholarship money. Silvers quickly obliged, enrolling in her first class at the college in August 2017.
Now, one year later, Silvers is embarking on the second year of her campus career. Silvers shared that her ambitions are fixated on finishing all the requirements within the college’s three-year paralegal program and graduating in the spring of 2020. From there, she plans on attending law school at a four-year university.
What drove Silvers’ interest in law? Simple: she wants to impact the lives of the ones who are in her shoes, the ones who battle the horrors of abuse and homelessness.
“I want people to have the opportunities I had,” Silvers said.
Nelson, this time taking a deep breath in between thoughts, reflects on Slivers’ journey.
Nelson said, “[Silvers] is the strongest person I’ve ever met. I don’t define strength as how much you can lift over your head. I define it as how much stress and patience you’re able to handle. Throughout this entire process, Stephanie has shown me how mentally tough she is.”