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A hard road from public aid recipient to public servant

There are some things Stephanie Everett never thought she’d be: a teenage mother, an abuse victim, a welfare recipient, homeless.

She became all of these things.

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Stephanie Everett is the new chief of staff for the Department of Transitional Assistance.

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Other things Everett never thought she’d become: an attorney, a Senate aide, the new chief of staff at the very agency that helped lift her from the abyss.

These things also came to pass.

The path from Everett’s then to her now goes through some dark places — places that could have been points of no return, and have been, for many.

Domestic violence was a family tradition. Her paternal grandfather killed his first wife, and her father seemed set to follow in his footsteps. Everett remembers watching in horror as her father held her mother down in the kitchen and gave her a beating, the first of many she witnessed. She was not yet 5 at the time. After her father left, her mother — eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder — remained unpredictable, swinging between obsessive neatness and destructive rage.

“One day our house got broken into, and it was completely trashed, and our first instinct was, ‘Why did mom do this?’ ” Everett recalled. Her mother attempted suicide, the family separated, and Everett, along with her brother and sister, went to live with their tough maternal grandmother.

Despite the turmoil, Everett tested into Boston Latin. For poor city kids, Latin can be a ladder out of dysfunction. Everett had one foot on that ladder when it fell away — or she pushed it — skipping so much school she had to repeat seventh grade. She returned to her Mattapan middle school. And even though she was back living with her mother and was a less than model student, she graduated high school.

After her mother sent her to live with her father in Georgia, “a light bulb went off,” Everett said. “I need to do well in school.” She enrolled at Morris Brown College in Atlanta. But after one semester, Everett, back in Mattapan for Christmas break, got pregnant by her high school boyfriend. She was 19, and though she swore this would never happen to her, she was happy.

“I had this notion a baby would love me no matter what,” she said. “I didn’t have to fit in.’’ Nobody else was happy. Especially not her boyfriend, who began beating her. Another of her nevers fell away: She was an abuse victim.

“You could see the bruises on my chest and arms, and my friends said, ‘What happened?’ and I said, ‘It was just him letting off steam, it’s fine, it doesn’t hurt anymore.’ ” She moved in with him shortly after her daughter was born on ­Labor Day 1995. When he went to jail (for something he’d done before they got together), Everett worked in telemarketing to pay for child care and food.

“My biggest thing was, I’m not going on welfare,” she said. But then her boyfriend got out of jail and threw her out. She was homeless and neither her mother nor her grandmother would take her in. She ended up in a shelter and was amazed to find a measure of peace there she hadn’t known in years.

“I didn’t worry about being put out,” she said. “I felt, ‘OK, I will knock on the door and be let in.’ ” She went to work part time at Marshalls and began studying at Bunker Hill Community College. Her daughter went to a day care for homeless kids – “a whole different level of low,” Everett said. She eventually got subsidized housing. And even though her boyfriend kept abusing her — at one point holding a gun to her side and threatening to kill her in front of her family — she became pregnant again.

“I didn’t think I was getting beat,” Everett said in her office on a recent afternoon, shaking her head at the memory. “I just thought we were fighting. It took me a long time to realize I was an abused woman. I had become my mother.” Defeated, she stopped working and studying, living up to the easy — and ignorant stereotype of the welfare recipient who isn’t trying.

She’s not sure exactly what brought her back, what prompted what she describes as her “Ike and Tina moment.” Maybe it was the nurses at her prenatal visits who begged her to dump her boyfriend. Maybe it was her grandmother who asked, “How can you be with somebody who kicks you in the face?” Maybe it was discovering he’d been cheating on her. But she remembers the moment when she decided the ugly cycle must end.

“I looked at my daughter, and my belly, and realized something has to change,” she said. She moved in with her grandmother, enrolled in classes at Northeastern University, and barreled forward, working full time. She fell in love and moved in with the man who would become her husband, a lineman at NStar, and they raised their kids together. Everett danced across the stage to get her diploma in criminal justice, then went right on to Suffolk Law School, taking on huge loans because she didn’t qualify for scholarships.

“A baby will slow you down,” she said. “You don’t get good grades when you graduate from undergrad with three kids and law school with four.”

She got off public assistance entirely in 2002.

“I don’t think I would be alive without it,” she said. “I would be on the streets. The state would have taken my daughter.”

And this is the point at which Everett blended back into the wider world — albeit a very, very busy segment of it. She and her husband now have eight children between them, aged 3 to 16. Her eldest daughter is in the National Honor Society. Her second is at Boston Latin Academy. “I’ve eliminated all their excuses,” Everett said. When Everett volunteers at community events, which is often, she brings an army of kids to help her.

She has spent her post-college career in public service, where her colleagues have been in awe — and maybe a little afraid — of her. As an aide to state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, Everett was the senator’s expert on youth violence, her liaison to Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, and the tough cookie who made everybody else work harder.

“She’s an incredibly driven person,” Chang-Diaz said. “The number of things she gets done in a day is mind-blowing.” The senator didn’t know the whole story of Everett’s background until she ran for City Council, unsuccessfully, last September. “It’s not something she wears on her sleeve,” Chang-Diaz said. “But once you know Stephanie, you think, ‘Of course she did that.’ ”

Daniel Curley, the commissioner at the Department of Transitional Assistance, didn’t know about Everett’s background either, at first. He wanted to hire her to run his staff and work with legislators because she was good at getting things done and because she knew the State House so well.

It turns out Everett, who ascended to her position May 7, is also the perfect advertisement for the services his agency provides, a living reminder of why it exists in the first place.

People are fond of kicking welfare recipients around, of highlighting the few abusers to undermine the whole system. Grandstanding politicians obsessed with whether women use food stamps to buy lipstick have much to fear from women like Everett. She’s living proof that public assistance can work. And Everett says she can round up half a dozen friends with stories similar to hers.

“It’s a weird thing, to go from relying on assistance from this very agency, [trying to] survive a day at a time, to working with the Legislature on policies to help people in your situation,” Everett said. “It’s surreal. If you’d told me this would happen 10 years ago, I’d have laughed.”

The taxpayers got their money’s worth.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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