She was six years old when her mother abandoned her and took off for Florida. She was 22 the Valentine’s Day when her drug dealer boyfriend dumped her and their newborn son on the couch while he left to play basketball with friends. She was 26 when she moved into Room 4 at the local homeless shelter. And she was 33 last year when her graphic design company grew 553% and she happily celebrated her seventh wedding anniversary with her husband.
Now, in 2011, Stephanie’s fingers fly over her bright pink laptop as yet another email pings into her inbox. “I know God gave me this graphic design company so I can provide low-cost products to ministries and to others who can’t normally afford graphic design,” she says. “And I want to bring hope to the world by telling my story–which I’ve named Homeless to Greatness.”
Stephanie twists toward the printer; her floor-length blue dress accentuates her loose blonde curls and her sometimes-green, sometimes-blue eyes as her heavy silver necklace clicks against the desk. Her swift, vibrant movements are infused with energy and absolute confidence that life is good. William High, one of Stephanie’s clients, notes, “When I first met Stephanie, I was impressed by her fearlessness and optimism […] She always has a mischievous smile on her face and a glint in her eye. Her ‘can do’ attitude coupled with this energy is infectious and attractive to clients.”
In the main office where a half dozen people are at work, a painted orange wave springs up the wall from behind a startlingly white couch. Floating on the wave is the word “ikros.” Stephanie’s company has a name, an identity. And for the first time in almost 34 years, Stephanie can say the same for herself: “I now understand who God created me to be,” she explains. “When I look in mirror, I see my reflection as who I am in God.”
It has not always been this way.
“If I had been worthy, perhaps my mom wouldn’t have left me and moved to Florida,” 6-year-old Stephanie reasoned, unable to factor in her mom’s adult reasons for leaving. Stephanie’s thoughts continued, “If my mom thinks I’m unworthy, other people must think that also.”
Stephanie’s parents’ divorce split her life into two worlds. Every summer she left her dad’s home in Missouri and flew to Florida to visit her mom. Because Stephanie spent so much time away from home, she missed out on all the things that cement childhood friendships…summer camps, slumber parties, and whispered secrets.
In the midst of this tension between her families and friendships, Stephanie retreated from conflict and desperately tried to find worth within herself. She made decent grades and stayed out of trouble in school, but her dad and stepmom always managed to find a reason to ground her or to keep her from doing activities other kids participated in.
“Before she turned 21, she was engaged; however, her parents did not approve. Still trapped by her controlling parents, she left her fiancé. But once she turned 21, something snapped. Stephanie began drinking and partying, declaring that her parents could not dominate her any longer. “I was trying to fill the ‘unworthy’ void,” Stephanie says.
That October, one of her girlfriends asked Stephanie to attend the homecoming game. And there, Stephanie saw him: a tall African-American young man wearing camouflage pants and a black hoodie.
At a party later that night, she ran into the same guy. He introduced himself as Shomari and asked her to dance. After attempting to pawn him off onto her girlfriend, she agreed.
Shortly afterward, Stephanie and Shomari entered a relationship—soon they were smoking weed and drinking together. But regardless of what they did on Saturday night, Shomari always drove to church the next morning to play the drums. “Shomari was my first glimpse of a relationship with God,” Stephanie recalls, “I didn’t understand how he made it to church. I was usually so hung over that I could not remember anything from the night before.”
“I thought I’d let everyone down because I couldn’t even take care of my family. There was nothing that could have broken me any further. But there was also something hopeful. I began to see that God had a plan for us. And I didn’t feel like I had to fight for love. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a family.”Stephanie Tillman
About six months later, Stephanie became pregnant. But this did nothing for her rapidly disintegrating relationship with Shomari. “If there wasn’t a [romantic] relationship involved, we would have been the best road dogs…We were each other’s best friend and worst enemy. However, since there was a relationship, it was rough. Rough to the point that we got into physical fights, rough to the point that I once tried to run over Shomari,” Stephanie says.
In December 1998, their daughter Desiree was born. “I was a crazy baby momma,” Stephanie declares, “If Shomari wasn’t with me and Desiree every moment, I felt unworthy.”
Even after Desiree’s birth, Shomari continued to sell drugs, something he’d been doing even before meeting Stephanie. Stephanie remembers, “There were enough drugs in his car to send him to jail for life. He was probably supplying weed for the entire campus [where he attended college].” Then, in February 2000, their son Isaiah was born. On Valentine’s Day, Shomari drove Stephanie and the new baby home, and then he left to play basketball for the afternoon. Stephanie just sat on the couch with her children and cried. She was terrified because she didn’t know what would happen or how her family would survive.
A year later, in May 2001, Shomari graduated from college and relocated to Columbia, Missouri alone to continue the drug lifestyle with his friends. Stephanie begged Shomari to give her money to move to the nearby Kansas City because she wanted her kids to know their dad. She knew Shomari would commute between Columbia and Kansas City to see his children. Once in Kansas City, Stephanie’s family looked fine outwardly: she lived in a good neighborhood, obtained a steady job at a pool hall, and shortly afterward, Shomari finally resettled in Kansas City.
One day, Shomari’s mother invited Stephanie to church. At first, Stephanie hesitated. She knew what others did not see—weed, cocaine, and wet (embalming fluid laced with PCP) filled Stephanie’s house. However, she finally agreed to go.
At church that night, a young woman gave her testimony about almost dying of a drug overdose. As the girl spoke, Stephanie thought, “That girl could be me!” Stephanie walked to the altar in tears and turned her life over to Christ. But once she returned home, she found Shomari in the exact place she left him—unchanged.
The next month, Shomari was arrested after a night out at a club. With Shomari in jail, Stephanie had to quit her job to watch her kids. She spent the rest of the month watching her children and praying while their already-low cash supply rapidly disappeared.
Meanwhile, Shomari met a minister in jail who encouraged Shomari to return to God. Upon Shomari’s release, he and Stephanie looked at each other: “Are we going to do this together or should we separate and just have visitation rights?” They decided to stick it out. In what Stephanie calls “the first adult decision of our relationship,” they purchased a marriage license with money borrowed from a friend. On July 1, 2002, they celebrated their marriage in a park complete with a beautiful sunset and a total of three wedding pictures.
After their wedding, Stephanie and Shomari had no place to turn. Their landlord was evicting them, Shomari could not find a job, and 9/11 had turned the economy upside down. However, the Tillmans clearly heard God telling them to pack their things and then, to be still. A few days later, the Salvation Army called. Somehow, they knew about Stephanie’s situation and had a place for them. So, a week after Stephanie’s wedding, her family moved into Room 4 at the Johnson County Family Lodge that housed nine other homeless families.
“I was so embarrassed and humiliated,” Stephanie says. “I thought I’d let everyone down because I couldn’t even take care of my family. There was nothing that could have broken me any further. But there was also something hopeful. I began to see that God had a plan for us. And I didn’t feel like I had to fight for love. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a family.”
After four months in the homeless shelter, the Salvation Army helped Stephanie and Shomari find jobs and move into a duplex. Those first days outside the shelter were difficult. Stephanie recalls one week when she needed orange juice for her kids’ colds. She spent twenty minutes in the grocery store staring at the juice and wrestling with God because she did not have enough money to help her kids. God told her to get the biggest juice bottle. And when she took the juice to the cashier, he discovered the price was marked wrong—so he gave Stephanie the juice for free.
In Stephanie’s spare time, she self-taught herself Microsoft Publisher and designed a postcard for a friend’s film project. That first project led to other design clients for Stephanie.
One day in June 2007, Stephanie spent the morning folding laundry in her bedroom and asking God whether she should pursue design full time. Around 10 a.m., Shomari called. After consulting with H&R Block for two years, they had just offered him a job with full benefits. With their family’s insurance needs covered, Stephanie submitted her two weeks’ notice to her job and founded her graphic design business in her home. Her title read CEO, designer, marketing manager and everything else rolled into one. There were rough days and months as Stephanie wrote business plans, hired employees, and dealt with frustrated customers as she fell behind on projects due to her company’s rapid growth. Yet, ikros survived and flourished, even growing 553% from 2008-2009.
Today ikros has a new building and eight full-time employees along with freelance designers living everywhere from the United Kingdom to Vietnam. Project Director Sarah DeGarmo says, “Every day, miracles happen at ikros. Some miracles are small and some are large, but they all come from him: I know it, our team knows it, and our clients know it.” Shomari adds with a smile, “I never saw it coming to this point, but [Stephanie] had a vision.”
As Stephanie looks ahead, she is excited about the future. “In two years, Shomari and I will have our tenth wedding anniversary. Maybe we’ll actually be able to buy wedding rings!” She laughs. “I would also like to be an author who has published multiple times—one book is in the final editing phase now. And I see our Homeless to Greatness story gaining visibility as I step back from the day-to-day tasks at ikros and speak about my story.”
Stephanie pauses, leaning forward, “Now that I am secure in the person God created me to be, I get to use my story and voice to influence culture and bridge gaps on multiple levels. There are stories out there about someone coming from homelessness, but my story is about how God can take people from homelessness and give them hope.” She smiles, “Romans 5:5, ‘And hope does not disappoint us.”