Brenda McKinstry has been with StreetWise for only three months now. She sells her magazines at 521 W. Diversey in front of the Market Place Foodstore in Lincoln Park. She is originally from Park Forest, a Chicago suburb, but now lives in Chicago at the Grasmere Place nursing home. Today, Brenda is focused on attaining her own housing and also building a strong and stable life for herself. But “stable” is not the first word that she would have used to describe her life, as she has pushed through a innumerable number of struggles to reach this point.
“My father, [Bill], was an alcoholic and, while he sobered up when I was 12, he became very verbally and sometimes physically abusive,” she explained. “I started having problems when I was 13 with drinking and running away. Then at 14, we discovered that my mother, [Beth], was dying of cancer. And I turned to harder drugs and alcohol and I spent most of my teens locked in one institution or another.”
At the age of 18, Brenda was released from the disciplinary institution that she had been admitted to by her father. She continued to let drugs and alcohol control her until she found herself in jail for three months in October of 1993. “I determined that I wasn’t going to die like this.”
She eventually found the right path and maintained her sobriety. During this time, she had a son named Alex. While he was still an infant, she attended college at Purdue University, where she received two Bachelor’s degrees, one in biology science and one in Spanish culture and language arts.
One day, on her way to work, Brenda faced yet another tragedy. “[Alex was in the car with me] when a truck crashed into us. I was in the hospital in a coma and… my son was left permanently brain damaged. He was 8 months old,” she said.
Despite this incredible hardship, Brenda was determined to care for her son. After graduating, she received a scholarship to Georgia Tech to enter their doctoral program for molecular biology. However, she turned it down to attend chiropractic school. “I thought that would better help Alex with physical therapy,” she said.
However, soon before she began the next step in her education, Brenda’s doctors told her that she needed to seek immediate medical help herself. “I’d contracted Hepatitis C and was not symptomatic for years. But I became symptomatic in 2002.” Because of this, Brenda’s mental fortress crumbled, she did not pursue her further education, and she again turned back to alcohol.
Her father, with the help of Brenda’s two sisters, Barbara and Beverly, stepped in to care for Alex while Brenda went through treatment. However, Brenda feels as if they unfairly judged her as an unfit mother during this difficult time and – through a series of legal battles – they soon gained full custody of her son. Today, Alex is 19 years old and lives in an institution in Rockford, IL. She visits him as often as she can.
Her sister, Barbara – who lives in Chicago – is still a very big part of Brenda’s life. She helps to support Brenda in various ways and also pays for a membership for her at a local club so that she can take Pilates and yoga. “My sister believes that you have to fix everything. You know, eating properly and exercising will make you feel better and relieve stress,” said Brenda.
She has been sober for a month now, which she is very proud of, and regularly attends AA meetings. She also hopes to find further employment which will allow her to use her college degrees and also someday reenter school to pursue her Doctorate degree. Thanks to StreetWise, she has all the backing in the world for all her goals. “I’m trying to make friends and build a support system and hold a job, and this is what StreetWise has given me,” she said. “I’m very glad that I’m here.”