An Amazing Journey

An Amazing Journey

An online student at Creighton who grew up in Chicago’s housing projects has earned a prestigious fellowship to help at-risk youth affected by violence

By Rick Davis, BA’88

Standing in a grassy field on Chicago’s South Side, Lachell Wardell lets the memories rush back. “Wow!” she exclaims, looking around at the now-vacant lot that was once part of the city’s most dangerous housing projects. And then, in a whisper, tears welling in her eyes, “Wow.”

She takes a moment to soak it all in. “It’s surreal,” Wardell says. “This is where my family lived. I haven’t been here since I made it out.

“This is the place where everybody was so fearful,” she continues. “This is where it all started. Wow, this is really incredible.”

Incredible could also describe Wardell’s journey.

Now a pharmacist, with a doctorate degree, Wardell is a student in Creighton’s online Master of Public Health program. She recently received a prestigious, three-year fellowship through the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars program.

Her aim is to help children growing up in poverty, specifically in Ferguson, Mo., who, like herself, are often traumatized by violence. Her proposal calls for direct early intervention, referrals and follow-up. She hopes to serve as a mentor, and encourage others to do the same.

She also wants to share her story — to let those children know that there is hope, that God loves them and, like her, they can succeed.

“It’s so important for me to stand in the gap for these children,” Wardell says.

Her story is both tragic and inspiring.

She was the third of seven children born to Eleanor Miles. Miles’ family had come to Chicago from Arkansas. They were living in the Robert Taylor Homes, the largest public housing project in the United States — with 28 densely packed high-rise apartment buildings, each 16 stories, stretching for two miles alongside the Dan Ryan Expressway. Eleanor was 19 and the mother of twin boys when Lachell was born in 1972.

Lachell’s father, Willie Steward, had come to Chicago from Mississippi. Lachell says that at 12 years old, her father had been arrested and thrown in jail in Mississippi, advocating for the right for black Americans to vote. “They were going to kill him,” Wardell says.

She says Fannie Lou Hamer, the famed civil rights activist, helped bail her father out of jail. Her grandmother put him in the back of a car after his release, and they whisked off to Chicago. They, too, took up residence at the Robert Taylor Homes.

Completed in 1962, the Robert Taylor Homes, located five miles south of downtown Chicago, was part of a massive federal urban renewal effort to eliminate slum neighborhoods. It became one of the most violent and poorest communities in the United States.

At one time, 95 percent of Robert Taylor’s adult residents were unemployed; the high school dropout rate of its residents was double the national average; and residents were twice as likely to be the victims of serious crimes as other Chicagoans. A serious lack of general maintenance and repair, along with overcrowding, exacerbated the problem. It wasn’t unusual to find 15 people — multiple generations of a family — living in one six-room apartment. At its height, an estimated 27,000 people were crammed into 4,415 apartments designed to house 11,000 residents. The projects have been called “vertical ghettos” and “vertical prisons” — where residents, primarily poor African-Americans, often felt isolated and hopeless.

Both of Wardell’s parents had dropped out of high school; her mother had attended nearby Crispus Attucks Community Academy. Wardell lived with her mother and siblings at Robert Taylor until about the age of 3 or 4, when her mother moved the family to an apartment in a “nicer area” on Chicago’s west side. Even though the living conditions improved, the pains of poverty were still a constant. “I remember standing out in the cold at 5 years old without a coat. It was so cold,” Wardell says. “I also remember there were a lot of times I would open the refrigerator and it would be empty.”

By the time Wardell was 8 years old, her mother had moved the family to the Ida B. Wells housing project, named after the pioneering African-American journalist, located a few blocks from the Robert Taylor Homes. It was here that Wardell, at age 10, would experience a traumatic, life-altering tragedy.

She was visiting her paternal grandmother at the Robert Taylor Homes. While she was away, an argument broke out between Eleanor Miles and her husband, who was not Wardell’s father. When Wardell returned home, she saw a horrific scene.

“When I came home, that’s when I saw blood on the walls and blood everywhere,” she remembers. Her mother had been badly beaten by her husband. “He busted her mouth; blood was on the walls. There was a mop bucket full of blood; she had tried to clean up her own blood. She’s all bruised up.

“She was supposed to have been separated from him, but she let him back. And I was so angry with her. ‘Why did you let him back again?’ She apologized and told me she loved me.” Wardell, still upset, pushed her mother away, and told her she hated her.

The next day at school, Wardell was summoned to the principal’s office. She was to go to her aunt’s house; her mother was in the hospital. “I never saw her again,” Wardell says, repeating more quietly, “I never saw her again.” Wardell’s mother died that day of hemorrhaging to her brain.    

After her mother’s death, Wardell was placed in foster care. “It was a horrific system,” Wardell says. “Horrific.” She was placed with a family in Chicago Heights. It was a nice neighborhood. For the first time in her life, she had a mother and father at home. She saw people go to work. She had three meals a day. There were no gunshots. “It exposed me to a different life,” she says.

But there was also a dark underside. She says her foster mother was “harsh” to her children, which at the time included 11 biological children and three foster children. At 14, Wardell decided she had had enough. “She had beaten me pretty bad,” she says. “I couldn’t take any more.” She took a cab to her grandmother’s house back in the projects. But to her surprise, her grandmother refused to take her in.

With nowhere else to go, Wardell, at age 14, was out on the streets of Chicago — homeless. She slept on the elevated trains, in abandoned buildings and at various people’s houses. During the day, she roamed the streets. A good student, she stopped going to school.

By the time she was 16, she was living with a guy, a drug user, in a cold basement in a rough neighborhood. But she always knew she wanted something more for herself. At a local technical school, she took a practice test for a General Equivalency Degree (GED). She says she earned a perfect score, but she didn’t have the $20 or $25 to take the actual test. She considered joining the military, but then she learned she was pregnant. On a cold December night, she felt pain. She walked down to the corner pay phone, alone, to call the ambulance. “I didn’t know I was in labor,” she says. She arrived at the hospital just in time, minutes later welcoming her first child, a daughter.

Wardell was overjoyed — she had always wanted a family — but she also describes it as the most difficult point of her life. She didn’t want to give up her baby. But, at 17, living on the edge herself, could she care for the infant? Should she leave her baby at the hospital? It was anguishing. She called family and friends. Eventually, an aunt agreed to help care for the child. Wardell, relieved, began taking temporary jobs. The boyfriend, the baby’s father, disappeared; she says he would eventually die of AIDS. In 1991, at the age of 19, Wardell got married and had two more children, a boy and another girl.

“At some point during that marriage, I thought, ‘I’m not going to be on public aid all of my life,’” Wardell says. “That was always something that was in the back of my mind. It was going to stop with me.”

She enrolled in Kennedy-King College, a local two-year community college, earned her GED and then continued on to earn her associate’s degree, earning a 3.96 grade-point average.

“As I was getting my associate’s degree, I said, ‘I’m going to be a pharmacist,’” Wardell says. “And they said, ‘You can’t be a pharmacist.’ If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it.”

So, in 2000, Wardell enrolled in the pharmacy program at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Her studies were made more difficult in the fact that she had now separated from her husband, who she says was abusive. The single mother of three (ages 11, 9 and 7 at the time) was determined, though. One day, she walked into the offices of then-Illinois senator Barack Obama, and asked the future president about scholarship opportunities. She earned a scholarship, worked hard and earned her PharmD degree in 2005.  

She worked as a pharmacist at national chain stores in Chicago, before landing a position as a contract pharmacist at Fort Leonard Wood, the U.S. Army base in Missouri. She called it the “best job in her entire career,” working with soldiers, including those returning from various deployments around the world. She was meeting with colonels and other military leaders. “They were asking me to update and write policy,” she says, “and I realized I needed more credentials.” She searched online and found Creighton’s online master’s degree program in public health. It was just what she was looking for.

“Public health is very much in line for me because I know what these communities are going through,” Wardell says, during a recent visit to her old Chicago neighborhood. “I understand what it’s like to be homeless. This is the train I used to sleep on. I know what that’s like.”  

Wardell says she was scared, at first, that she wouldn’t be able to compete and succeed at Creighton. “But it has been an awesome experience,” she says. Wardell says she has found tremendous support at Creighton, even as an online student, including from former interim director of the program, Bill Raynovich, EdD, who still teaches part time as a retired adjunct associate professor. Wardell says supportive teachers, such as Raynovich, have served as important mentors throughout her life.

Wardell is excited about the future, especially her work as a Robert Wood Johnson fellow. She recently moved back home to Chicago, but she is collaborating with a former colleague at Fort Leonard Wood, Capt. Tonita Smith, and a church in Missouri to help carry out the project. Believers Temple Word Fellowship, a nondenominational church in St. Louis, is recruiting at-risk youth through its Young People Leadership Academy. Key components of the program will include access to mental health care and social services; college readiness and life-skills programs; and mentorships. “But the most important part of this program will be the spiritual component,” Wardell says, “because these children, they have no hope. We need to provide them with hope.”

While the Robert Taylor Homes and other Chicago high-rise housing projects have all been razed, the struggles of poor inner-city youths are still a painful, everyday reality.

The late Pierre deVise, a noted Roosevelt University professor who studied Chicago’s changing neighborhoods and railed against the projects, estimated in a 1987 documentary on the Robert Taylor Homes that fewer than 4 percent of the projects’ residents would ever make it out and break the cycle of poverty in their lives.

Wardell has done that. Through all the trials and tribulations, she says she feels blessed and credits God for pulling her through. She now wants to give back.

“That’s maybe why the Lord has me now in this direction, to help children who have been exposed to violence,” Wardell says. “Now, I’m full-speed ahead. This is my passion. I’m driven by this.

“With God, I am going to change the world.”