Lachrisha LaVette Parker remembers what it was like to be homeless.
The former Army master sergeant would sleep on a relative's couch or on the floor of a friend's apartment with her 2-year-old son. It was a brutally difficult time that forged her, tested her belief in herself and challenged her to become something better, someone stronger.
She was serving in the Reserves and going to school, but she didn't have a coat, warm shoes or many resources for about two months, she said.
“I didn't like that feeling,” Parker said by phone from her home in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “I knew I was going to do something better and give my son something better. I went to social services and applied for housing. The shelters said I couldn't have a child with me, and that made it really hard. There just wasn't much I could do. I was barely out of poverty.”
Because she can never forget that time, the Fort Wayne native is trying to make sure no other female veterans who are homeless will be forgotten.
It was this reason that she decided to compete in the Ms. Veteran American Competition in Hollywood in early October.
But it took a lot of convincing, Parker said.
When a friend suggested last year that Parker, 48, compete in the pageant, she scoffed, “A beauty pageant? No way, that's not me.”
Then the friend explained the pageant was a platform for raising money for homeless female veterans, one of the fastest-growing homeless populations in the country.
“If it was about something else, I'd have stepped out, but this was something I couldn't turn down,” the 1989 South Side High School graduate said.
Parker served in the Army for 28 years, even giving up her son to her twin sister to raise so she could continue school and go on active duty before retiring last September. She eventually built a life with her husband, Reggie, and their five children.
Parker tried to forget about those times, and in fact, never told her friend or husband about them. Mostly it was because of pride, embarrassment and shame, she said.
“I didn't know about it until a couple of days ago,” said Tamara Files, who's been a friend of Parker's since they were 6 or 7. “That's a testament to who we are as far as the strength within us. Sometimes we feel like we have to go through things by ourselves without sharing even with our closest friends and families.”
As upset as he is about his wife's circumstances before they met, Reggie Parker is extremely proud of her accomplishments now.
“It was bothersome to me as her husband to think that I wish I had been there sooner so she would not have had to go through that or I would have been able to help her with that burden,” said Reggie Parker, a retired sergeant first class. “But I realize that was part of her growth and what helped her become the person she is, what helped her become a master sergeant in the United States Army, just going over and above the standard at all times. She knew she had to continue to work hard to keep herself in a position where she would never be homeless again or want or need anything. It was a driving force for her.”
Parker not only raised more than $6,000 in donations in the pageant, she also earned a top-10 finish, winning the She Wears It Well Award for best dressed in the evening gown competition, and the Showstopper Award for the talent lip-sync competition, choosing the song “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman.”
She said she chose that song because some of the things that made her stronger come through in the tune.
“It spoke about my journey in the military because of the hardship I endured,” Parker said. “It touched me. Some of it was being female and you have to fight really hard to prove your point and be a leader as a female in wearing the uniform. It's about some of the battles I have gone through in being a black female in leadership, some of the scars and the disappointments.”
The pageant made her realize how far she has come in her life and taught her that if she could learn to stand up for herself, then she could help others stand on their own.
“And learning about myself. And accepting myself,” Parker said. “I usually just want to be in the background. I like being in a support role, but this was more of an opening, a homecoming because I got to know myself. That I am beautiful, that I do have scars, but it's OK to have scars. It's OK what other people may think of you. You don't have to have it stick to you or care about that. I'm OK with just being me.”
Her son is now studying for a business degree in fashion merchandising in an Alabama college, and his mother has a new purpose.
“Now the true work begins,” she said. “Now we are advocating to make it better for those who have no home, no housing. Now it's bigger than me. It's better because now I see how important it is.”