LaShenda Williams woke up in a grocery store parking lot last year after another restless night in her car. On the window of the supermarket, she spotted a new flier.
The East Nashville Kroger store where she had been living in her car for almost a year was advertising a job fair. Williams, 46, who has a learning disability and has difficulty reading or writing — and had been addicted to drugs — saw meaning in the flier. It was as if there was a sign within the sign, she said.
Williams went inside the store, as she did every day, to say hello to the employees. But this time, she gathered her courage and asked the hiring manager: “Maybe I could work here one day. You got room for me?'”
The manager, Jacqueline Vandal, said she’d help Williams fill out the application.
Vandal sat with her patiently and helped her answer all of the questions on her application, then submit them on Williams’ laptop computer. When a prompt came up, informing Williams that she’d successfully applied, Vandal immediately gave her the good news: “You’re hired.”
“I couldn’t believe it — I hugged her and cried,” said Williams, who has been homeless off and on in Nashville for several years. “It was overwhelming. Somebody gave me a chance.”
Vandal, 56, said Williams’ persistence in filling out the application tipped the scales in her favor.
“LaShenda had the right attitude, and I knew I needed to give her a shot,” Vandal said.
“I didn’t know at the time that she was living in her car,” she added. “I just knew she was struggling.”
Williams’ turn of hard work and good fortune might have ended there. But then in May, after working for five months as a self-checkout associate, Williams saved enough money to get a small place of her own.
Coworkers and customers rallied to collect household items for her one-bedroom apartment, said Williams, and after her story was featured on Kroger’s website and in Nashville’s Tennessean last month, offers of help poured in.
When Verlenteez Williams (no relation to LaShenda Williams) learned that LaShenda was having trouble furnishing her new place, he posted on the East Nashville private Facebook group page, asking for help. He received more than 200 responses, he said, with people offering everything from living room furniture to kitchen appliances.
“I met [LaShenda] in passing while shopping at the Kroger, and she always said ‘hello’ and had a smile,” he said. “I knew I had some things [to donate], and I figured since she’d been a delight to me, there were surely other people who felt the same as I did.”
Verlenteez Williams, who runs a food prep and catering company in Nashville, said he wasn’t surprised that people were eager to step up.
“We were all feeling empty from the uncertainty of the times,” he said. “All we really have are each other.”
Until she put on her uniform and reported for work at Kroger, LaShenda Williams said, she felt for years that she had no one.
“I couldn’t imagine that I’d work one day at the same store where I was sleeping outside,” she said.
Originally from Alabama, she moved to Nashville when she was 19 and became addicted to crack cocaine, she said.
“I walk with a limp because I have cerebral palsy, and I had a tough time getting hired anywhere, so I just did odd jobs like housecleaning,” Williams said. “When I finally got treatment for my addiction, I couldn’t afford a place of my own. I’d live from place to place or stay in abandoned houses.”
It was late 2018 when Williams decided to park her 2015 Kia Forte in the Kroger parking lot.
“It was open 24 hours and the lot was always lit up at night,” she said. “I figured I’d be safe there. I’d hunker down in my seat to sleep and nobody could see me. For more than a year, hardly anybody bothered me — I’d grab my little blue blanket and curl up.”
With money from occasional cooking and cleaning jobs, Williams was usually able to afford food from the grocery store, but sometimes she felt hunger, she said.
“I felt blessed on the days when I could walk into that store and get something to eat and drink and hear a kind ‘hello’ from somebody working there,” she recalled. “I’ve always felt safe there.”
On the day she applied for a job, Williams said, she was nervous because of her learning disability, which makes it difficult for her to read and write.
“I was filling everything out the best I could, and Ms. Vandal could see that I was having a hard time,” she said. "She came over to help me and said, ‘Don’t you worry — we’re going to help you to get back on your feet.’ "
Vandal said Williams was a great hire.
“The customers all really like her,” she said. “LaShenda is always positive and uplifting.”
Now that she’s working from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. five days a week, Williams said she sometimes pauses when she climbs into her car at the end of the day to drive home.
“I have a home to drive to!” she said. “I’m so happy to still be here — I’m grateful to be alive. No matter what I’ve been through, I’m still standing.”