Ashley Harvey rests in a worn chair in her small public housing apartment. Her suite has a torn front door screen. The floors need refinishing. The yard could be mowed in two minutes.
Harvey's at peace. She doesn't see dereliction, she sees promise. At 24, she has accomplished more than she ever expected. An unplanned pregnancy and the promise she made to her newborn daughter get much of the credit.
Harvey grew up with a single mom on welfare. That stains a kid. She ate to cover her pain and entered her teens fat. By Grade 9, she weighed 220 pounds. Classmates taunted her with "Hungry, Hungry, Harvey," a cruel variation on a popular kids' board game. She went to school infrequently and got in trouble when she did.
By spring break of Grade 9, she had been suspended 42 times. She was asked to leave and enrolled in a school for high-needs teenagers. She finished Grade 10 before she dropped out for good.
"I was 14 and I was just sick and tired of life in general," said Harvey. "I longed for some sort of acceptance and adventure."
She found it in drugs and the friends it brought. While she doesn't go into specifics to protect her grandparents, she admits she started smoking weed at 15 and moved on from there. She never dealt, she said, but bought more than she needed to help out her friends. That's a narrow nuance.
She wasn't a sex-trade worker, but recalls standing guard in the bushes while her friends turned tricks. This is how some teenagers live, secretly and on the margins.
"By the time I was 16 I was so depressed I literally didn't feel like a human being. I wouldn't talk."
The only constant was a dishwashing job she held from 14 until she was 19. She quit because they wouldn't give her time off to attend a concert.
She got pregnant at 19. The father was a guy she'd been friends with for years. They didn't use birth control because doctors told her an ovarian cyst made pregnancy impossible. At least that's what she heard. She wasn't engaged enough to care. By then, her drug use had dropped her weight to 130. She and the father broke up in her first trimester.
"I had no plan. I had no reason to exist. I didn't know if I wanted to have an abortion, give her up for adoption, whatever."
A friend told her about Villa Rosa, a Winnipeg pre- and post-natal residence. They offer housing and education for pregnant women and second-stage housing after babies are born. Three weeks later, she was in residence.
"At first it was horrifying. Being a single child I'd never shared space with anyone. There were all these women and all these children."
She stayed because she thought it was her only chance.
"I knew that was the place where I could fix myself."
Her daughter Rain was born healthy. Harvey finished her Grade 12 at Villa Rosa. She's clean and sober now. She's in her second year of social work at University of Manitoba's Selkirk Avenue campus.
School is a 45-minute bus ride from home. That gives her time to read and study without interruption.
"I went into social work because I want to give people the chance I was given. I just think I would be good at it."
She's got advice for people who think they're at a dead end.
"Work hard. Don't give up. If you see an opportunity, it's only good if you actually do it. A lot of people want to get their kids back, they want to get an education but they don't do anything but talk."
She promised Rain a better life.
"I used to have all that shame and guilt in my life, but I'm doing it so I don't have any more shame and guilt. I'm not living in a palace, but someday it will be a palace. She's going to know how hard her mother worked."
Ashley Harvey sits square in that tatty chair. This is success, measured by a woman who has inched her way toward a healthy future. Villa Rosa's annual fundraising dinner is Wednesday night at the Clarion Hotel.