For most of her adult life, Amber Rayoni was indifferent about many things, including Mother’s Day.
The 35-year-old, a native of Uniontown, was caught in a cycle of addiction ― including pills, powdered cocaine and crack cocaine ― that undermined her ability to be an effective and nurturing parent.
Rayoni, who has four children, endured a number of failed relationships.
And while struggling with her own mental health, Rayoni was often wracked with anxiety and self-doubt that stunted ambition and fed her self-destructive dependencies.
“I started using when I was 14. I went to several rehabs. And by 2017 my life completely got turned upside down,” said Rayoni, a former restaurant worker and trainer.
“I gave up my kids to my family, and my family didn’t want anything to do with me because I was using heavily and I just wouldn’t stop,” Rayoni said. “I lost my apartment and I lost my car and I was lost.
“Growing up in my family, Mother’s Day was a big deal because my mom was a supporter. We always tried to make Mother’s Day special for her,” Rayoni said.
“But I didn’t celebrate Mother’s Day myself because I didn’t feel like I deserved to,” she said. “I hadn’t been a mother. I was all about myself.”
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‘Learning how to be a grown-up’
On this Mother’s Day, Rayoni has plenty to celebrate.
She has been sober for 19 months.
Rayoni and two of her children, nearly 1-year-old Legynd and 9-year-old Elijah, live in a new, furnished two-bedroom apartment at the Mercy Anchor Community Center, located at the former Holy Rosary School building at 1012 E. 28th St.
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The transitional housing complex, which opened in March, was created by the Mercy Center For Women, an Erie nonprofit that provides transitional housing for homeless women and children who have been affected by adversities such as substance abuse and domestic violence.
Each of the fully furnished apartments features a kitchen, full bath, stackable washer and dryer and other amenities.
Tenants pay varying rents based on their income and the government assistance they receive, and they must abstain from using alcohol and drugs, unless prescribed by a physician.
Any violation results in the immediate termination of a tenant’s lease agreements.
“I’ve learned so much living here,” Rayoni said. “I take parenting classes and we have (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings here. I cook dinner at night in an apartment that’s brand new, and I’ve never lived in a place this nice before.
“I have structure for the first time,” Rayoni said. “I’m learning how to be a grown-up. I love it here.”
Rayoni is working to rebuild her relationships with her two other children, 12-year-old Josiah and Sincere, 10, who currently live with relatives in Uniontown, which is roughly 45 miles southeast of Pittsburgh in Fayette County.
“I caused a lot of pain in my kids’ lives by not being there for them,” Rayoni said. “That was my rock bottom. But they are also my motivation to stay clean and be better.”
Rayoni is currently unemployed, but she is working to forge a career as an addiction counselor/specialist.
“It took me a long time to want to stay clean. Now I want to help people stay clean,” Rayoni said. “I feel like if I can do it after using drugs for 15 years, anyone can if they are motivated right.”
Growth and recovery
Jennie Hagerty, the Mercy Center’s executive director, has witnessed Rayoni’s personal development and resolve firsthand, fueled by a desire to be better for her children.
Rayoni came to Erie in 2020 via referrals from mental health professionals in Fayette and Washington counties after learning she was pregnant with Legynd, who was born in May 2022.
She spent time in other Erie-based treatment programs before moving into the Mercy Anchor Community Center in April.
“Her growth in her recovery stands out,” Hagerty said. “She has gratitude and appreciation now for the gifts that she has been given, primarily her children, and this opportunity to get clean.”
Hagerty pointed out that Rayoni spearheaded efforts to bring Narcotics Anonymous meetings to the new center.
Those weekly meetings are open to anyone in the Erie community.
“Amber was the catalyst behind having those meetings here, and making sure that the clients are active participants in them,” Hagerty said. “That says a lot about her.”
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Hagerty said Rayoni’s self-improvement work has special resonance in regards to Mother’s Day.
“When you think about Mother’s Day for the women and children we serve here, it’s more about celebrating good family relationships and being able to have that in a safe and secure place,” Hagerty said.
“Although flowers and chocolates and brunches are beautiful things to do to honor your mother,” Hagerty said, “the best thing you can do is find and prioritize time as a family to be together. And that’s what we help our clients do here.”
Rayoni said she hopes to start a recovery center of her own someday that assists women and children affected by drug and alcohol addiction.
She also wants to buy her own house in the next few years and have all four of her children living under the same roof.
On Sunday, Rayoni plans to attend a Mother’s Day breakfast at the Mercy Anchor Community Center, an event that in many ways signifies both how far she’s come and the help she’s received.
“You can always work to be a better mother and I really know now that it’s never too late,” Rayoni said. “I lost a lot of time. But now I know my worth. I can be someone my kids respect and appreciate.”
Contact Kevin Flowers at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ETNflowers.