When you don’t have a home you have nowhere to sleep, take shelter, or store your belongings. But being homeless can also deplete you in other treacherous ways. It can undercut self-esteem, stifle creativity, and dull the spirit.
You might say that Talitha-Koumi “T.K.” Oluwafemi took a nontraditional path to homelessness.
Born and raised in Rochester, New York, where her father was a social services worker and a Pentecostal minister and her mother taught elementary school, Oluwafemi studied at the State University of New York at Albany, earning a master’s in educational administration and policy studies.
A former minister of a Pentecostal Church in Washington, D.C., Oluwafemi took one unexpected turn when her marriage turned sour. After experiencing domestic violence, she divorced her husband. Her life returned to some normalcy, however, when her former husband started having regular visits with their daughter, Joy. “He told me that he was working on his issues and I wanted him to have a good relationship with her,” Oluwafemi says.
She later completed a master of divinity degree from Northeastern Seminary of Robert Wesleyan College in Rochester, where she also served as program director for Rise Up Rochester, an organization that provided social and emotional support for crime victims, homicide survivors, first-responders, family members, and others.
Then, “to find my theological voice,” as she puts it, she decided to enroll in a graduate program at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Her goal was to “marry theology with some social justice issues.” By September of 2015 Oluwafemi and her six-year-old daughter, Joy, were happily living on the campus of the Princeton Theological Seminary, where she was a full-time student pursuing a master’s of theology.
But things fell apart when her ex-husband attempted to obtain custody of their daughter. Overwhelmed with fear, she became so depressed she could not complete her coursework to meet the requirements for her degree. Although the seminary granted her an extension and was extremely helpful at the time, she could not get the additional financial aid that she needed to continue as a fulltime student. When the semester ended Oluwafemi found herself at Womanspace, a non-profit organization that provides services to individuals and families impacted by domestic and sexual violence. After being sheltered there for 24 days, Oluwafemi and her daughter were referred to HomeFront, the highly regarded provider of centralized services to homeless families founded by Connie Mercer 25 years ago.
Oluwafemi can vividly recall what went through her mind as she and her daughter pulled up to HomeFront’s new campus near the Mercer County Airport in Ewing, a recently renovated former Naval training station that can now accommodate up to 38 homeless families. When Oluwafemi saw the sign for Celia Way she thought, “It is going to be OK.” Celia is the name of her paternal grandmother and the familiar association provided comfort in a moment of crisis.
At HomeFront she was provided with an apartment. “Our room number was 227,” Oluwafemi says with fondness in her voice. “At this point in my life, I had no possessions and I was given a voucher to go to HomeFront’s Free Store. I remember trying on different pairs of shoes and thinking ‘I am going to walk in someone else’s shoes.’”
Oluwafemi’s experiences during this time were transformative. “Prior to being homeless, I would not have been comfortable wearing someone else’s shoes. It was quite humbling,” she says. “I felt grateful to have a pair of shoes to wear. You really do have to walk in someone else’s shoes to get perspective.”
The concept of not having a home was especially unsettling to Joy when they first arrived at HomeFront, Oluwafemi says. “I told her that we were not homeless, we were undercover spies doing an investigation of shelter life, which helped to reduce her fear.”
Their first day at HomeFront started with a tour of the campus. Oluwafemi was shown two therapeutic arts venues that help participants rekindle the spirit through creativity. ArtSpace was created in 2007 by volunteer Ruthann Traylor to provide a space to help clients heal from the trauma of homelessness, find their voice, and discover their own creativity as a valuable resource during their journey. SewingSpace evolved a few years later, enabling residents to learn sewing skills and create professionally designed crafts.
When she saw the ArtSpace studio and gallery, Oluwafemi was “mesmerized” by the beauty. “I have always been creative and when the volunteers told me that these paintings were created by the people in the shelter, I found this very inspiring.”
Oluwafemi and Joy spent most of the day at ArtSpace and by the end of the day Oluwafemi noticed a significant change in her daughter’s outlook. The day before, while they were meeting with their caseworker, Joy drew a picture. Her mother looked at the frenetic scribble on the page and when she asked her for the title, Joy told her the title is “I’m Mad.”
After spending the day at ArtSpace, Joy painted another painting that she called “Christmas in July.” Gold and red glitter filled the canvas and in the middle of the painting was a door. Joy told her mother, “We can have Christmas every day if you open the door.” Oluwafemi felt this was a significant turning point for them.
The next day Oluwafemi went to ArtSpace immediately after breakfast and discovered SewingSpace, a large room filled with sewing machines, fabrics, threads, and craft items. Tables were placed throughout the room and each had groups of people working on projects. Using materials from SewingSpace, Oluwafemi added them to her paintings to create collages. Ruthann Traylor, who is now the fulltime director, has created a creative and welcoming environment that helps participants thrive. “Ruthann would tell me, ‘this is your space,’” Oluwafemi says.
Oluwafemi began her healing journey with a series of paintings called Tree Ladies. “I thought about the trees, how they stand tall and how you can find shade from the harshness of life and shelter under a tree. Even during the seasons the trees will shed leaves and remaining standing. This was symbolic of my own life which felt encouraging to me.”
Oluwafemi is now settled into a permanent apartment with her daughter. “I used to keep my past homelessness a secret,” Oluwafemi says. “I was feeling a lot of identity shame and moral shame. I was identifying as the human condition, I was experiencing, rather than who I was. Now I am coming out to share my story.” Oluwafemi is committed to all her ministries: her work, art, and eventually she hopes to teach at the college level.
She addressed her identity shame in part by officially changing her name. Her compound first name, “Talitha-Koumi,” is a phrase from the Aramaic Bible in the book of Mark: “Little lady, arise.” She explains that the phrase is really a command. The last name, “Oluwafemi,” is from Yoruba, a language spoken in Nigeria, and means “God loves me.” While the name may be a mouthful, Oluwafemi keeps it simple by having people address her as “T.K.” A happy coincidence that she discovered is that the three initials together are “TKO,” a boxing term for technical knock-out. “I’m a fighter,” she says with a smile.
Eventually Oluwafemi completed her training at HomeFront as well as her remaining requirements to complete her degree from the Princeton Theological Seminary. When she was ready to pursue employment, Susan Ashmore, the volunteer who worked with Oluwafemi at HomeFront’s SewingSpace program, urged her to apply for her current position as volunteer coordinator at the Princeton YWCA.
The two keep in touch and recently Oluwafemi recruited Ashmore to volunteer at the YWCA Crafters’ Fair. Oluwafemi believes her experiences at HomeFront taught her many invaluable skills that she uses in her current role. “I would be painting at ArtSpace and the coordinator there would interview volunteers right there,” she says. “So I learned a great deal from having the opportunity to observe the process.”
“I really admire their effort to recruit volunteers who were cheerful and have a heart, since the residents are at a vulnerable and transitional time in their lives.” Oluwafemi’s experience as a minister has also served her well in her current role. “I have to partake of the first fruit. I can’t ask people to volunteer their time if I don’t have a space in my heart there. When I share my story, they will share their story.”
Oluwafemi still finds time to preach. She will be the guest minister on New Year’s Day at 10 a.m. at the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in Princeton. Her daughter, now seven, continues to do well. Oluwafemi reports that a teacher recently told her at a parent conference that her daughter “advocates for herself.”
As volunteer coordinator and life skills educator for the YWCA, Oluwafemi encourages people who can give their time to help promote racial literacy, offer help to immigrants, and assist those learning English as a second language. She also is eager to develop partnerships with other organizations.
And while her YMCA duties are centered in affluent Princeton, Oluwafemi is also involved in the Y’s “emPOWER THROUGH” initiative, a Trenton-based program to help Mercer County residents ages 16 to 24 who are not currently enrolled in school to obtain high school equivalency diplomas. The program is offered in conjunction with Latinas Unidas of Trenton — for information call 609-777-5405.
Through it all Oluwafemi is determined to live an “authentic life.” Now when she tells her story, she makes sure to share an essential part: “I lived at HomeFront.”
Princeton YWCA, 59 Paul Robeson Place, Princeton 08540. 609-497-2100. www.ywcaprinceton.org.
HomeFront, 1880 Princeton Avenue, Lawrenceville 08648. 609-989-9417. www.homefrontnj.org
HomeFront Family Preservation Center, 101 Celia Way, Ewing 08628. 609-883-7500.