Photographer:  Jack Strutz

Photographer: Jack Strutz

Interviews conducted by Casha Doemland

Alexandria House, located in the Koreatown off of Alexandria Street in Los Angeles serves as a transitional housing shelter for women and women with children. Founded in 1966, this house has helped 92% of the women find financial stability and permanent housing.

Meet Gigi, an activist for incarcerated women and men, children of S. Central and individuals who have experienced trauma.

Read on to discover how she rediscovered her strength after 29 years in prison and losing her only daughter.

Gigi, what is your story? How did you arrive at Alexandria House?
It's a long one but, okay. I did 29 years in prison for domestic violence. I was in a very abusive relationship with a man. I ended up shooting him.

After they passed the battered women's law, I fought and go out of jail through court.

I was doing really really well and had been out 4 1/2 years. Then, everything just happened at once. The first thing to happen at 55 was surgery to have part of my finger amputated. After that, my daughter died and then I was diagnosed with breast cancer – all of this happened in a 10-month span.

After my daughter died, I just gave up on life. I took off to Tucson, AZ and didn't talk to anyone. No one knew where I was. Except, there's also been one nun in my life, Sister Suzanne.

When I came back from Arizona, I was living in Long Beach. Except Sister Suzanne did not like me living there because I was roommates with my ex-husband. We'd been divorced since 1979, but the death of our daughter brought us closer. We've got a few grandchildren together, and I was okay there. His girlfriend didn't like it, but he wasn't going to put me out.

Sister Suzanne said, I want you to go Alexandria House and I'm like, no. To me, after being in prison I felt like I was moving backward. I've always worked with the homeless.

When I first got out of prison in 2009, it wasn't that I was sheltered or anything but the homeless reminded me of a third-world country. I started to speak with the homeless over the holidays because I'd rather be with them than my family.

When I came to the interview, I totally sabotaged the interview. I remember, Sister Suzanne saying, "No no no, you're going back". I told her I didn't really need it at this time, but they asked me to come to share my story with the women.

The second time, I told Sister Judy exactly what I told the woman to interview me the first time, the truth. I had somewhere to stay. My ex-husband was not forcing me out.

What are the little things about yourself that you’d like to share?
I have to do something for a total stranger every single day. I don't care how small it is.

I'm a really giving person. I don't care what they do with it. I used to buy a gentleman outside of Panera Bread when I worked in North Hollywood a sandwich three days a week, and one day he asked me for Vienna sausages instead. So I went out and bought them, and it's things like that.

Today, I have a lot of blessings. I work for nonprofits like Fair Chance Projects and with the youth of S. Central.

How do you like living here?
I like living here, but it's time for me to move on. I'm like the mother; I fuss all of the time. I am really outspoken, and I stay in therapy. Even through the prison experience, no one deserves to be in a cage for that many years, I found myself. I found who I was.

Today, I don't need a relationship. I am good with where I am. I do everything by myself and I would rather do it by myself. I go to the movies by myself. I go to the club. If I wanted to go to Hawaii, I'd go by myself. I am comfortable with myself.

But I love it here, it's just time for me to go.

Where do you want to be in a year?
I should be moving. I need to be looking for a place, I have just been so busy between my co-op and my job that I haven't really had time to look. I was also running around for the Poor People's Campaign in Sacramento. It was amazing. That went on for 40 days, but I only worked Monday's for that. I thought God, this is why I want to be an activist.

I am gearing up to do a whole year of training with the Women's Foundation. I am filling out the paperwork now.

Two things I'd like to focus on are Criminal Justice or Trauma.

What are you grateful for?
Life. Just life.

Three years ago, I didn't think I would ever come back from my daughter's death. It was so much. It was so hard. She was in the military. I wanted her to be buried... she died and I swear altitude had something to do with is because she lived in Colorado. Only been there a year, broke her leg from the hip down and while it had healed, no one knew she had a blood clot. She just went to sleep one night and didn't wake up.

Oh my god. It was one of the hardest things. My family was very controlling. I had to fight with them about my own baby's funeral. I told all of her cousins that I wanted them to be pallbearers. I wanted them to wear black suits with red ties.

We played "This Woman's Worth" by Maxwell at her funeral because it was a song I wanted her to play at my own. My sister wanted to fight about that, but I told her no, this is my daughter's funeral.

Another thing, that reminded me. My daughter's son was out living with me because he didn't want to move to Colorado. A week before she died, his phone got shut off. My daughter called me and told me that I need to get his phone turned back on because it's the only way she can communicate with him. So, I did.

I called her and asked if she talked to Calvin, and she did. The very next Saturday she died.

That was a battle. Everything has been a battle.

What empowers you?
What empowers me? Wow, that's a good question.

My beliefs that everything is going to be okay. I am really positive. I have to stay that way. I listen to that, I really listen. I answer the questions that need to be answered. That's just my beliefs.

For example, when I quit my job, I knew I was going to be okay. It has been. For the most part, I land on my feet. When I did spiral down, I allowed it to happen because I was broken. I was okay when I got my finger amputated. If I had a choice, of course, I would choose to keep it, but I didn't have a choice. I accepted that.

Anything that happened, I tried to stay positive.

Also, In life I learned, if you can’t change something, don’t stress yourself out. That’s a hard thing for people in life to understand.