A Surviving and Thriving Person

By Tim Leighton
Updated: July 23, 2009

MINNESOTA — A mirror has become one of Charde Houston’s best friends.

In what has become a daily ritual, the second-year Minnesota Lynx forward listens to music, stares at the reflection and likes what she sees. It’s not vanity.

It’s triumph over a hardship-filled past that includes becoming a substitute parent to siblings at age 9, trying to make sense out of a broken family, being homeless and living in a car, and dealing with self-esteem issues that pushed her deep into despair.

“I like the person that looks back at me now,” said Houston, 23, who is having an all-star-caliber season in her second season with the Lynx. “It has been such a long and tough road to get to this place of peace. Sometimes I wonder where I would be if everything had gone well. For so long, I hated the person I saw in the mirror.”

That person was filled with resentment, rebellion, embarrassment and anger. Growing up in San Diego and some of its suburbs, Houston not only was faced with the typical teenage temptations of drinking, smoking, drugs and sex, she also witnessed her family’s financial struggles.

Houston, a high school All-American and a college star at Connecticut, used basketball to get her through troubling times, but kept her emotions inside. An ESPN feature on her during her junior year at UConn highlighted her interest in fashion and design and also touched on her past. Watching her humbling past on television made her cry.

Often.

“It was uncomfortable for the longest time afterward,” Houston said. “Suddenly, a whole lot of people knew about my past. It was hard for me to address, hard for me to talk about.”

She no longer has reservations. Buoyed by the motivation to educate youth in similar situations, Houston is sharing hope through a newly created foundation.

“Tenacious, that’s what she was,” her mother, Dorothy Greene, said from San Diego. “She has always been a different kind of a kid. When I say different, I mean that in a good way. She was humble and full of spirit. We lived in a time of expectations. My kids were taught that being a single parent is very tough. But if you want to achieve something, you have to step up to the plate.”

GROWING UP FAST

As Greene, an ex-Marine, worked three jobs to support three children, Houston, at age 9, became the substitute parent to younger brothers LaTerrence, now 21, and Kenechukwu, now 14. Her father, Terry Houston, lived in nearby Oceanside, Calif. Houston said her mother and father divorced when she was young.

“My mother always preached that young women were supposed to be strong and independent,” Houston said. “Part of that meant knowing how to cook and clean. My 14-year-old brother is almost like my son. I took him everywhere and cared for him.”

“As a child, it was frustrating for me because I just couldn’t run off and play. I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t we just send them to a baby sitter or a day care?’ I didn’t figure it out until later that we just didn’t have the money for that kind of thing.”

But Houston kept her emotions to herself.

“Rebelling, to me, means trouble,” she said. “I was too much of a daddy’s girl and a mama’s girl. I didn’t want to hurt my parents. I only wanted to please them.”

Basketball, meanwhile, became her place of solace.

Dribbling, shooting and making plays on a basketball court gave her comfort. Houston said she took out any frustrations by playing tough defense.

It became a frustration when she had to tote her brothers along to practices, but coaches were accommodating. Houston also got reprieves on the weekends when she spent time with her father.

Financial arrangements between her father and mother were never shared with her. Her father, who has worked for San Diego Gas & Electric for more than 30 years, supported her financially in basketball, paying for such things as equipment and travel fees.

But at her home with Greene, changes began to happen at about age 11. Greene said a car accident, in part, was putting a financial strain on the family’s income.

Changing residences became more frequent, and Houston said the places seemed smaller. And those trips to fast-food restaurants when they could eat to fulfillment? They no longer existed as the family began to share portions.

The financial hardships took a stunning turn in March 1999 when Greene told the family to start packing. Fast. Not surprised to hear the family was moving, Houston figured it was just to another residence. Instead, U.S. marshals were coming with an eviction order and a foreclosure notice.

They had to be out by the next morning. The only place they could stay was the family’s subcompact car.

“I felt like my whole world was crashing down,” said Houston, who was 12. “I thought we were moving to a house where we would live happily ever after. It was embarrassing. I was too young at the time to understand what was happening and the tough choices my mother had to make for our sake. It hurt so much when she said we had nowhere to go.”

The family of four lived in the car for about two days. Houston was sleep-deprived from crying.

“Living in the car isn’t for anybody,” she said. “I remember those two days so vividly. I couldn’t sleep, and I thought about so much. How do you go from having a pretty good life to having nothing at all in the blink of an eye?”

Greene’s mind was spinning, too, for answers. She knew the family couldn’t stay in the car for an extended period.

Houston ultimately found a place to stay with her best friend, Vanity Cooks, and LaTerrence stayed with relatives. Greene and her baby son stayed in the car, spending the nights in different places in and around San Diego.

“There were times when police told us to move along, and times when they said it was OK to stay but move the car in the morning,” Greene said. “I had to find safe places to stay. I had to sleep with one eye open. We just couldn’t sleep in the same place twice.”

Renee Cooks, Vanity’s mother, became a surrogate mother to Houston.

Eventually, Greene was able to rent single rooms at various places.

With the Cookses, Houston found a sense of direction and family structure.

Renee Cooks became a confidante. She told Houston and Vanity they needed to be responsible and make smart decisions.

“I could talk to Renee about anything,” Houston said. “My situation was a touchy subject, but she would listen to me, give me words of encouragement. She told me to not give up, you will do well in school, you will go to college, and you will earn a college degree. That kept me on track. I don’t know where I would be without Renee Cooks in my life. The things she did for me, she didn’t have to. She could have easily sent me back with my mom. Who knows? I could have ended up pregnant or doing drugs, or been murdered.

“The temptations were out there. I could have smoked, done drugs, drank alcohol or had sex. I had freedom; my mom wasn’t around. Any time thoughts of anything like that came up, I just reminded myself that I didn’t want that kind of life. Renee said you have to be responsible and make strong decisions. I didn’t want to disrespect that.”

Cooks was also supportive in Houston’s basketball life, too, with rides to practices and attending tournaments.

“It got to the point when I was playing in tournaments, no one knew who my real mother was,” Houston said. “When you saw me, it was with Renee. Everybody thought she was my mom. It got to the point where I just accepted that because it was easy and comfortable. There was too much to explain, so I just went with it. If they wanted the truth, they would have had to ask questions.”

Greene is thankful for Cooks’ presence in her daughter’s life.

“I was homeless for almost three years,” Greene said. “Charde would come and visit me, when I was living in the car and whatever, but I didn’t want her to see me in that state. It would have been traumatic for her. When she saw me, I would have to put on a happy face.

“I have the utmost respect for Renee. It takes a village to raise a child. At that time, Renee was the center of my life and Charde’s.”

Tension between Houston and her mother increased again when Greene married a man while she was still homeless.

“The person I married, his situation was worse than mine,” Greene said. “Charde didn’t like him. He was a (people) user, and Charde saw that. That’s when she started to rebel a bit.”

Said Houston: “I wanted her to put her time, energy and focus into making it a better situation for herself and us.”

As a high school senior, Houston moved in with an aunt. She had one wish: With visits about to begin by college recruiters, she wanted a stable place to be proud of. A home is all she wanted, in part, a place to get a good night’s sleep.

Through an act that Greene said must have been by the grace of God, Greene gathered the resources to secure a tiny two-bedroom apartment.

“It was in the ghetto, but it seemed like a mansion to us,” Greene said.

“I was jumping for joy,” Houston said. “You would have thought I had just hit the lottery and was moving into a mansion. I remember going into this tiny bedroom and being thrilled. It was a place I could actually call my own. I was so overcome with joy that I cried.”

PAYING IT FORWARD

Houston was considered the steal of the 2008 WNBA draft when she was selected by the Lynx in the third round with the 30th overall pick. At UConn, she averaged nearly 10 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 139 games.

In her rookie season with the Lynx, she averaged 8.8 points per game, the highest average for a third-round pick since 2000.

With the help of Houston’s WNBA salary (about $42,000) and playing in Israel (about $100,000), Greene now has a stable home. She has been unemployed for many months because of a work injury.

“She is my backbone,” said Greene, who made a recent visit to the Twin Cities to be with her daughter. “If it weren’t for Charde, I would be homeless. She is so supporting. It is comforting to have her by my side.”

Houston lives in St. Paul in a furnished apartment paid for by the Lynx.

During the WNBA’s offseason, Houston decided to form Project YOU (Youth Opportunities Unlimited). The nonprofit organization will be based in San Diego.

“I had to go through this and experience these things first-hand,” Houston said. “I want to give youth that are walking in my same footprints that they can be effective in this society. I had really low self-esteem. I want to form support groups so they can go out and not feel alone.

“If I can go out and encourage youth to accept themselves and to be strong individuals in society, I think it can change so many lives. I am living proof. I am 23, confident and independent. If I touch the life of one person that reads my story, that makes it all worthwhile.”

Houston’s background isn’t lost on the Lynx.

“The surroundings made her hard, but she kept her gentleness,” Lynx coach Jen Gillom said. “That’s how you can make it through hard times. She didn’t try to be like her surroundings. She wanted to be better than that. She has conquered.”

Teammate Candice Wiggins, who also grew up in San Diego, met Houston when both were 12.

“She carries herself now with the same spirit she’s always had, and she’s so determined,” Wiggins said. “The biggest change as she gets older is that she gets it.”

“She still has the same qualities from back then, but now she realizes that basketball is bigger than just playing. Obviously, on the court, she’s become a great player. Off the court, you can see she’s really grown up and it’s inspiring because I’ve seen her through all of her stages.”