You are here

Love of learning lifts family out of homelessness

Bickhams familyOnce homeless, Sonnie Dae (center) and her family now live in a four-bedroom townhome. Pictured with Sonnie are her children (from left) Amethyst, Freedom, Xirix and Christl Bickham. All photos by Preston Merchant

By Soyia Ellison 

Sonnie’s daughters all sing and play piano. Here, they entertain their mother with a rendition of Alicia Keys’ “No One.”Sonnie’s daughters all sing and play piano. Here, they entertain their mother with a rendition of Alicia Keys’ “No One.”

OAKLAND, California — Twelve years ago, Sonnie Dae and her children were living in a homeless shelter in Livermore, California. 

Today, she owns a four-bedroom townhome and a brand-new minivan. She has a master’s degree and a job teaching teachers. And she has children who are leading interesting lives — working and studying and making music. 

Sonnie’s journey from homelessness to homeownership began with help from Habitat for Humanity East Bay/Silicon Valley. 

While staying at the shelter, Sonnie took a money management course. Someone from Habitat came to her class to talk about its affordable homeownership program: “I was like, ‘I can’t do that yet,’ ” she recalled, “but I put it on my list.” 

She and her five children eventually landed a temporary spot in low-income housing. She attended college with the help of grants and student loans, racing to get her education degree and teaching credentials before the government help ran out. 

She also applied for a Habitat home. And in 2008, in the middle of her first year of teaching fifth grade in the Oakland Unified School District, she became a homeowner. 

Sonnie (back) poses with her daughters (clockwise) Christl, Amethyst and Xirix around the ballet barre in Sonnie’s bedroom.Sonnie (back) poses with her daughters (clockwise) Christl, Amethyst and Xirix around the ballet barre in Sonnie’s bedroom.

The delight of little things 

Sonnie and her family loved everything about the new house: the space, the cleanliness, the energy-saving solar panels. Even the little things delighted them: So many electrical outlets! And designed for three prongs! 

“You don’t get those in an old house,” Sonnie said, laughing. 

And, she said, “We had a dishwasher. We didn’t have a dishwasher before. Or a washer and dryer.” 

Her oldest daughter, 23-year-old Christl, chimed in: “That’s my favorite part. Having a place to wash your clothes just right downstairs.” 

Becoming more serious, Christl described how life changed after the move: “It got stable. That was one of the best parts. And being able to say to friends, ‘Do you want to come to my house?’ ” 

Her sister Amethyst, 21, added, “It was something we could be proud of.” 

By the time they had moved in, Sonnie’s oldest son, Purple, who is now 28, had moved to Sacramento. So her son Freedom, now 27, had a room to himself, and Christl and Amethyst shared a room. Youngest daughter Xirix, now 18, shared a room with a cousin who came to live with them after her mother died in a car accident. 

The family bonded with neighbors in their new subdivision, an oasis of 54 colorful townhomes in an otherwise grim section of Oakland. 

“This was the first place where we really knew our neighbors,” Christl said. 

Their townhome sits just across from a little park where area children gather to play, and they have enjoyed watching the neighborhood’s littlest residents grow up. 

“When we moved here, they were toddlers,” said Amethyst, who recently graduated from the National Holistic Institute and works as a massage therapist. “Then they got older, and you realize, they grew up together in a little community, and they all know each other.”           

Christl (center) and her sister Amethyst (left) watch the latest video by their sister Xirix (right), a budding rapper and spoken-word artist.Christl (center) and her sister Amethyst (left) watch the latest video by their sister Xirix (right), a budding rapper and spoken-word artist.

Investing in learning 

The new townhome brought the family a certain amount of financial freedom. 

A manageable mortgage payment replaced outrageous rent, and Sonnie used some of her new disposable income to earn a master’s degree in education, specializing in science. 

“I grew up in Louisiana, on a farm. I spent a lot of time in nature, so it was kind of natural that I really liked science a lot,” she said. “My major was going to be biology in college, but when I started a family and I stayed home with my kids, I kind of forgot about it.” 

Now she’s an elementary science specialist, helping other teachers teach science more effectively. 

Most of Sonnie’s extra money over the years has gone to support her children’s education and hobbies. 

“People in this family love music,” she said. “A lot of money has been invested in music.” 

All three of Sonnie’s daughters play piano and sing. Christl, who is studying music technology at Chabot College, also plays guitar and is learning violin. The house is filled with musical instruments, including a Clavinova digital piano. 

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the girls gathered around the piano and performed for some visitors. Xirix played Alicia Keys’ “No One” while her older sisters sang. Earlier, they had huddled around the computer to listen to a new beat Christl had recorded, and before long, they were back at the computer to watch Xirix’s latest rap video on YouTube. 

“Aw!” Christl exclaimed as she watched. 

“Cute,” Amethyst said. 

Freedom missed the show; he runs an Intel Computer Clubhouse — sort of a technology-focused Boys & Girls Club — and he had some work to do. 

Sonnie is proud of what her children have accomplished. 

“I always thought if I put good stuff in, good stuff would come out,” she said. “A lot of what children achieve depends on your ability to support them. So when they want to run with something, or if they want an instrument, you give it to them… This house being affordable made that possible.”