By: Kara Alt, Director YWCA Labyrinth Outreach
I first met Nita at the YW Labyrinth office. She had just attended an AA meeting and was meeting with her case manager to discuss her goals. She was excited to be on our waiting list for transitional housing and told me how grateful she was for the opportunity.
About a month before we launched Labyrinth Made Goods in 2020, we lost Nita unexpectedly. And to say that Nita meant a lot to the entire Labyrinth community is an understatement. She was more than a friend - or participant in our program. Her spirit embodied the entire existence of Labyrinth Outreach - and her memory now shines bright, represented by the flame lit on each Solidarity candle. With notes of lilac buds, green leaves, and cool earth, our latest scent Solidarity keeps her memory alive.
As the director of YWCA Labyrinth Outreach, I live our mission of supporting women who have experienced incarceration daily. I know the importance. I know the value our services offer this community. And I learn everyday - growing both personally and professionally. But when I look back at my time with Labyrinth, it’s safe to say that Nita Nesby taught me some of the most important lessons that I live by today. Throughout her time with us, Nita would talk about how much Labyrinth helped her grow, but I don’t think she ever realized just how much she taught me:
Always laugh at yourself. Nita enjoyed life and she enjoyed laughing, even if it was at herself. She had a motorized scooter that she would take on longer trips around town. I remember her coming back into the office to park it one day - she had the speed too high and took out half the items on the baker’s rack we had in the kitchen, along with a couple baseboards. She had everyone in the office laughing so hard.
Enjoy the present day. Nita had a long history of trauma, but she didn’t talk about it much. On our longer trips to out of town doctors appointments, she would sometimes talk about things that happened to her as a child, but she would always bring it back to how grateful she was to be where she was presently. She was so proud of herself and she deserved to be. The day after Nita turned 55, she celebrated one year of sobriety and that was the longest consecutive time she had been sober since her teens. She didn’t spend time wishing that her life had been different or that she had made different decisions in the past – she would always just bring it back to the present day – so happy to be sober. “I learn something new every day and it’s amazing!” She repeated that phrase all the time.
Go after your goals. Nita’s love for learning something new every day was contagious. It was never too late for her. She didn’t dwell on not doing things earlier in life. At 54, she began GED classes at Heartland Community College. She loved school so much and was committed to succeeding. During the day, I would sit at the table and do my work while she would sit next to me and work on her math and ask for help when she needed it. She didn’t allow herself to get discouraged – she just soaked up every opportunity to learn.
Be unapologetically you. She took every opportunity given to her. When we had volunteer opportunities come up, she was there. When we asked if anyone wanted to participate in an interview, she was the first one to say yes. Nita loved to share her story and she loved to talk about Labyrinth. She spoke to an ISU class multiple times and was very active in helping with the development of our Labyrinth Made Goods. And she had no fear. She was never nervous about walking into an ISU class or interviewing with a storyhunter from Google. She was just her authentic self. She didn’t adjust her personality to try to fit the people around her and I think people truly appreciated that about her. I know I did. And I admired her for it. Her heart was genuine and I think people could really tell that.
Set boundaries. She grew up in this area and a lot of people know her from her using days. It is a hard adjustment for anyone to change their environment – the people, places, and things you've known for so many years, but she stayed true to herself and her new, sober life. She set boundaries with people who still used. She would be their friend and let them know she cared about them, but if it was not safe for her sobriety, she would not spend time with them.
Believe in yourself. She was terrified that one day we were going to ask her to leave Labyrinth (you can stay in our transitional living program for up to two years). In all of her 55 years, she had never lived alone. During the beginning of COVID, she had to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks and she was scared. She made sure I had a key and called Labyrinth staff just to chat several times throughout the day. By day 3, I received an email from the manager of the hotel saying that Nita had met most of the staff, wanted to live at the hotel permanently, and that everyone was enjoying her being there. While she did have to return to Labyrinth after that, she stated that that was the first time in her life she knew that she could live alone, enjoy it and be able to care for herself. Nita moved into her own apartment for the first time in her life, just a few months after her hotel stay.
Tell others you love them. She wanted people to know that she cared about them. She considered Labyrinth a part of her family and when her GED class had a food night, she invited Labyrinth staff and introduced us to her teachers, who had already heard about us. I have several voicemails on my work phone of her just saying that she was checking in and that she loved us.
Nita led a life inspired by love - and solidarity. And she passed during a time in my life when I was faced with a very difficult decision – and, as I was deciding what to do, I would often replay all that I learned from her. Know that it’s never too late to try new things or take a new path. Be a life-long learner. Stay true to yourself, respect your own boundaries, and walk away from anyone who doesn’t do the same. Laugh. Find joy in each day. Always tell people you love, that you love them.
Nita left such a big impact on us and it was in part because she stood in solidarity with us all, clients, staff, and other community members. Her energy was contagious and compelled the people she interacted with to stand in solidarity with her and have more compassion for others. When you light a Solidarity candle, remember Nita, even if you didn’t know her - and feel her love and power. Her legacy is part of every single candle we make because of the love and power she shared with us.