When Lemanda Del Toro arrived at Haven for Hope, she looked like hell. Two black eyes. A broken nose. Stitches and staples in her face. A neck throbbing from whiplash.

On May 18, 2015, Del Toro wobbled onto the campus, battered and concussed. Beneath her injuries was addiction and a history of abuse, hidden wounds from sexual assaults, dating to childhood.

Del Toro used meth and alcohol to numb the pain. She joined a gang, worked for a drug dealer and wound up homeless in Southern California.

Haven for Hope Peer Support Specialist Lamanda Del Toro. Photo by Scott Ball.
Haven for Hope Peer Support Specialist Lamanda Del Toro. Photo by Scott Ball.

“I lived on a mattress in the desert under a tarp,” she said.

Desperate, Del Toro made a phone call. Her sister-in-law suggested a homeless program in San Antonio – Haven for Hope. A dealer overhead the conversation and attacked her.

“Before I knew it, there was a one-two punch and a square kick in the face,” she said.

The beating drove Del Toro, 35, to an astonishing recovery. Old friends would not recognize her today. She shares a house in Castle Hills with a friend, owns a car, has a bank account, pays her bills and maintains her sobriety – 452 days and counting.

Oh yes, she has a job and office at Haven for Hope. Del Toro is a peer support specialist, helping others who arrived as she once did, homeless and broken.

“I’m doing things today I never thought I was capable of before – getting up and not feeling sick, going to work and loving work,” she said. “I have this profound gratitude for life. And this place, it’s contagious. People smile and they are genuine when they say, ‘good morning.’ The hugs are real. You can feel it. They care here. It’s like heaven on earth.”

The eyes gleam and her face glows. She speaks with a kind, gentle voice, her words flowing with humility and grace. She did not feel judged when she arrived and offers no judgment today – only empathy and help.

“I know how to get out of here,” she said, “and stay on your own two feet.”

Del Toro is one of Haven’s many success stories. Since the campus opened in 2010, more than 2,800 residents have exited the transformational campus and moved to permanent housing. After one year, 90% of those who leave do not return to homelessness.

Lamanda Del Toro sits for a portrait at her desk in her office, an accomplishment Lamanda never thought she could obtain. Photo by Scott Ball.
Lamanda Del Toro sits in her office at Haven for Hope. Photo by Scott Ball.

Every resident has a story of dysfunction. Del Toro’s began at the age of 2 when her parents split. Her mother remarried and that’s when her earliest memories formed – as nightmares.

“My stepfather sexually abused me for several years,” she told Haven graduates at commencement in May. “I endured many sleepless nights.” Her mother brought other men home. More abuse followed. “I came to expect,” she said at graduation, “this is what life is about.”

Horror gave way to drinking and drugs, to addiction and anger.

“I was expelled from six different high schools,” she said. “Violence was the reason for all of the expulsions. I was a very violent kid with a lot of pent up anger.”

At 21, Del Toro gave birth to a daughter. At 30, she gave up custody to the girl’s father. Why? “I was drinking myself to death,” she said.

Four years later, police asked Del Toro to identify the man who battered her face. She hesitated. As a little girl at home, she had protected her abusers. As a woman on the streets, she had kept her mouth shut. But then, at last, she spoke the truth and police made an arrest.

When the door to jail clanged shut, the gate to freedom swung open. At Haven for Hope, Del Toro embraced recovery.

“There’s a beautiful thing called the gift of desperation,” she said. “It brings a most amazing surrender.”

A sticker found on one of the exists to Haven for Hope's campus. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
A sticker found on one of the exit gates at Haven for Hope. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

At Haven, Del Toro completed an in-house recovery program. She learned the triggers that led to addiction. She started a journal and read the Bible. She embraced faith.

“I did a complete 180,” she said. “I took the time to be still and recognize that I didn’t know anything at all. I became teachable. Everything I did in my diseased life got me nowhere. I have to treat every day like it’s brand new. I celebrate that re-set.”

After five months, Del Toro moved off campus and began daily commutes to Haven. She shared her story with Uber drivers. They in turn shared their own. Del Toro identified with their problems and offered hope.

“By the end, they’d be in tears,” she said, “and we’d be praying and they would ask, ‘How can I be of service? How can I help?’”

Rolanda Anwar, an employment readiness trainer at Haven, remembers the beat up woman who arrived last year. She watched as Del Toro completed the recovery program and left to become a successful telemarketer. When Del Toro returned, she became a driver, transporting some in need to detox, others to Haven.

“It’s amazing how many people she’s touched,” Anwar said.

Del Toro sometimes walks across campus with a paper crown, a symbol of transformation. For most of her life, she was an addict, a victim. But after entering Haven’s gates, she found a new identity. When residents ask about the crown, she replies, “I’m a child of the most high king.”

Every day for Del Toro is a gift. Take Saturday. At a recovery speaker-meeting at Haven for Hope, she inspired 150 listeners with her story. The same day, she picked up her daughter, now 15, and brought her home for an extended visit.

The disease that tore them apart lingers but no longer controls Del Toro. “I will always be an addict,” she said, “but I am a recovered addict.”

Recovery is a moving, vibrant portrait to behold. It’s a mom listening to music with her daughter, laughing on the way to dinner, driving into a future, bright with possibility.

https://rivardreport.wildapricot.org

Top image: Lamanda Del Toro greets 19 month Haven for Hope resident Kenneth Eanes on campus.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

‘Machine Gun Preacher’ Inspires at Haven for Hope

Children of Haven for Hope Celebrate New Playground

Haven for Hope Jail Outreach Program: ‘It’s an Opportunity’

Carmona Resigning as Haven for Hope CEO

Ken Rodriguez

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native and award-winning journalist.