The First Ladies of the Hillside: Mothers, leaders, artists, dreamers |

The First Ladies of the Hillside: Mothers, leaders, artists, dreamers

Updated: July 20, 2021 06:47 PM
Created: July 19, 2021 08:44 PM

In the hum of the hillside, a group of women are becoming stronger, together. They are the First Ladies of the Hillside, and are making changes to their neighborhood.

This all started during the pandemic. Thanks to a grant from the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, Wi-Fi was installed at the Steve O'Neil Apartments.

Molly Harney, an early childhood expert and professor at UMD, has been part of the fabric of the apartments since the beginning. She invited a group of woman to join her on Zoom. "Around the election, they decided to name themselves the First Ladies of the Hillside," she remembered. They've been meeting every Wednesday since last August. And they have forged strong friendships. 

One of them, is Amber Pelfrey. She's one of the originals at the apartments. "They were still working on the second floor when I moved in,' she recalled.

Now she's working on her own originals, which are pieces of fascinating fluid art. Colors blend and move, and mean something at the end. "Each of them, I put a lot of emotions in my piece," she shared. She uses a tiny blowtorch to put the finishing touches on the paint.

It's helped her deny her drug addiction from returning. "I don't dwell on the stuff that happened. The life I lead, it was crazy, and almost a different person. It's like I'm watching a storyline. I cannot believe I did some of the stuff I did," she said.

The art, is therapeutic for her. And she wants it to inspire feelings of healing and hope.

In another apartment, her friend Rachel Ross uses another tool to help move the paint. A blow dryer is an important part of creating these explosions of expression. It's an outlet in her journey out of addiction.

"I replaced heroin with this. Drugs with painting. They say if you chase sobriety as fast and as hard as your drug, you'll be alright," Rachel said.

Rachel is from Kentucky. She moved north to escape triggers that made it difficult to stay sober. Still, it wasn't easy. "I was homeless on the streets of duluth. Nowhere to go. Knew nobody."

Now she's making a home for herself and her son, 5-year-old Kayden."I'm safe, and my son's safe. I'm definitely grateful for the roof over my head."

She and Amber have been friends for several years. But their circle of support has grown, thanks to Wi-Fi and Zoom and the First Ladies.

They started venturing out in person as well. They want their children to thrive. Those little ones are a big part of the reason they are staying strong and staying clean.

For Amber, her son helped her get clean. "I was heavily using when I got pregnant. He saved my freaking life," she told us about Lukas, who will be 7 in August.

Lukas is now part of all of their lives. And so is baby Faith. She was born into all of this. "She's really a good baby," said her mother, Heather Zellner.

Heather has overcome so much in her 33 years. Addiction, abuse, and homelessness. "I see my life changing for the better, and I love it," she said.

She told us she's a different person now, when it comes to parenting. "I'm more responsible, more reliable." Her other three kids have been adopted, but she is able to have some contact with them.

This time around, with Faith, she's done with drugs, and is no longer alone. "When I had Faith, is when I started asking for help. These ladies are helping me now."

Another lady, Rhoda Zarbok, is raising an excited little Evelyn.  Rhoda is three years and five months clean off of meth. "I went through treatment seven times," she told us. 

Having the extra support of the First Ladies during COVID has made a big difference. "100%," she said.

As a whole, they want the rest of the world to understand, that drugs change you into a different person. And they are not those people any more. "When you're sober, you're in your right mind. You don't even think about doing criminal things," Rhoda explained.

Instead, they're busying being mothers, leaders, artists, and dreamers. "They've given me my confidence back," Rachel said.

And now, they're moving on, to making their neighborhood a better place. Stay tuned for part two, on Wednesday at 5pm.

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