“Rome has changed my life”, says a former homeless person

ROME – When Shyla Montoya first arrived in Rome in 2016, she was a temperamental youngster in her twenties who was just beginning to question herself after a stint on the streets, still clinging to the anger and bitterness that had accompanied her for much of her life.

For most of the trip, Montoya struggled to contain the resentment that bubbled up out of control, and it nevertheless sometimes manifested itself in often blatant hostility toward those around her, including those traveling with her and the people she was traveling with. encountered along the way. At the time, it almost seemed like a disaster.

However, with hindsight, this trip marked a turning point. Almost six years later, Montoya is completely transformed: despite a series of health problems, she has found faith, forgiveness and a family she never expected.

“Rome has changed my life a lot,” Montoya said. Nodenoting that after his first visit in 2016, “all the negative people started leaving my life, and all the positive people came into my life. God has a lot to do with that.

Montoya was invited to go to Rome in September 2016 with the Denver Homeless Ministry (DHM), created by Tanya Cangelosi – a former homeless woman who started the ministry to serve people, who she says , fell through the cracks, both equals and friends. .

For the past eight years, with the exception of 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cangelosi has offered one of his “street friends” the opportunity to travel to Rome to broaden his horizons, reminding him that there is more to life than their immediate situation and that change is possible.

Given the remarkable changes in Montoya’s life and the crippling physical challenges she had to overcome, she was asked to return to Rome with the DHM for the March 2-9 trip this year, but had to withdraw. at the last minute to undergo brain surgery related to a tumor for which she is receiving treatment.

Montoya, 28, never knew her father and was tossed between her mother and great-grandparents until she was six, when her mother died, and she went to live with her great-grandparents. -full-time grandparents.

When she was 14, her great-grandfather died and Montoya was run over. She ran away and was eventually placed in a group home. When she tried to return home to her great-grandmother, whom she always called ‘Mamma’, Montoya was told she couldn’t due to her great-grandmother’s age. -mother and the teenager’s penchant for getting into trouble.

She was later placed in foster care, but quickly ran away and got by for a while with friends before eventually returning to the group home. She decided to go back to school and start putting her life back on track, but when she was 18, her great-grandmother passed away.

Without a family and feeling alone in the world, Montoya started drinking and stealing to get by for several years, until she decided to look for a job and managed to get public housing.

Shortly after returning from the trip to Rome in 2016, Montoya converted and began attending an evangelical church, where she met a couple who immediately took her under their wing and have since adopted her.

It was this couple that Montoya turned to when in 2019 she was diagnosed with grade 2 astrocytoma, a type of brain cancer.

“I didn’t know who to call, so I called my mum and dad, Charles and Theresa, and they immediately came to the hospital,” Montoya said, calling out his health issues – which have included seizures, surgeries and a litany of drugs – a blessing in disguise.

“Having health issues has been a wonderful testimony, so I can encourage others. Don’t get me wrong, there are downsides, but I see it as a blessing,” she said. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I do, but I have to live, because no matter what storm I face, I know that in the end the rainbow will come. learn to dance in the rain and learn as I go.

Although she was unable to attend this year’s trip to Rome as planned, after having to undergo surgery for a brain hemorrhage resulting in more than 40 stitches a week earlier, Montoya said she hopes to recover. travel to Rome with Cangelosi in October, once she has recovered from her surgery.

“I hope this time I go to Rome, I can go there for myself, and not for others, not for social networks. The last time I went there, I went there for social media, I went there for my family, I didn’t go there for me. This time I’m taking it because it’s a blessing from God,” she said. it was a blessing from God.”

Talk to NodeCangelosi said when it was time to start planning this year’s trip, Montoya was the obvious choice from the start.

“The difference is that Shyla is so dramatic. It’s a day and night difference from the person she was when I took her to Rome five years ago; she’s very humble, and sometimes way too much sorry for her actions, because once I forgave her, I’m done.

Cangelosi, who bore the brunt of Montoya’s wrath on the last trip, said she preferred to forget everything and wanted to think of Montoya “as the person she is today: warm, loving, nice to everyone and always has a smile on her face even when she has tears in her eyes.

“She wanted so badly to prove on this trip how much she had changed. I don’t think it’s necessary, but I would still like her to see Rome with her new eyes, her new love and her new optimism,” said Cangelosi, saying she hopes to bring Montoya back in October, if her doctors approve.

Still, even though Montoya was unable to take part in this year’s trip to Rome, it had a significant impact on the others who came.

While the DHM only offers the trip to one person, Cangelosi allows other interested people to participate, as long as they pay for their own trip, or at least part of it.

This year, Cangelosi was joined by three others – Rachel Mora, who served as a chaperone; Cassi McPhail, who was homeless but turned her life around and now works as a medical assistant in a pediatric practice; and a woman named Patti Fairbanks, who raised 13 foster children — burying some of them — and whom Cangelosi met while the two were volunteering at a local women’s shelter.

Cangelosi said that although Montoya was unable to join the group in Rome, the trip continued “with her in mind”.

This was particularly the case at Anzio beach, she said. The group drew him hearts in the sand and sent him pictures, as one of Montoya’s favorite things “is collecting random hearts”.

Cangelosi said she asked Fairbanks and McPhail for a deposit on the trip, but decided to match it for both because she felt they deserved to go.

McPhail, 29, had a tough childhood that brought her to the streets at 17. She spent two years living either in her car with an ex-boyfriend or under bridges with other homeless young people. However, at 19, she was determined to change her circumstances and started working full time.

Now she has a stable job and shares an apartment with a friend, and, speaking of her past situation, says “I haven’t taken that job since.”

She joined DHM’s trip to Rome in March 2020, paying her own expenses so she could join Cangelosi and Angelique Vega, DHM’s selection for the trip that year, for a visit that quickly changed course during the coronavirus pandemic. coronavirus COVID-19 broke out and things quickly started to come to a halt.

Every day something else on the group’s route would suddenly become banned as Italy rushed to stop the spread of infections, meaning the group spent most of the time wandering the streets and watching the most emblematic monuments and museums of Rome from the outside.

McPhail chose to return this year to see the things she missed, and she wasn’t disappointed.

Talk to NodeMcPhail said the 2020 trip was “disappointing, scary and exciting all at the same time…everything day after day was closing in and we weren’t able to experience much of the tourist side of Rome”.

“We never knew what was going on. Every day different news came out and we had to rush out of the country before we got stuck there,” she said, but the experience was also exciting because “I was able to experience a unique adventure in the streets of an abandoned Rome, wandering where there was literally no one else outside.

Among the highlights she listed were the food and the chance to see the beach for the first time on a day trip to Anzio, which Cangelosi added as a surprise outing for the group. She also loved shopping trips in the rain, and even the adventure of missing a train stop and being stuck in Naples overnight.

“I never thought I would go to Italy, let alone Italy being the only place I’ve ever really visited,” she said.

“Knowing that I can actually travel outside the country without family and understanding things through my anxiety makes me more confident,” she said, adding, “My past has made me who I am. today, but it will never hold me back in what my future has to offer.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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