Once homeless, couple share story of success

OLATHE — Whenever business owner Stephanie Tillman needs a reminder of how far she's come, she thinks back to a day eight years ago.

She's driving the family's Ford Taurus on that steamy July day, the two kids in the back seat. Husband Shomari is up front with her, and their clothes are shoved into two plastic garbage bags in the trunk. The air conditioning is broken and the suspension is so bad that the car almost scrapes pavement.

As they drive closer to the Salvation Army Family Lodge, the Olathe shelter where the family will live for four months, one thought screams in Stephanie's mind: We're just like those other homeless people we see.

Today, the Tillman tale is one of the Salvation Army's best local success stories, told publicly and sometimes privately to people who end up broke and broken and lean on the agency for help. The family moved on from the shelter's cramped Room No. 4, eventually bought a spacious home in Johnson County and created a thriving graphic-design business.

And just when the story seemed pretty much complete, the Tillmans added a prologue this week.

At a ceremony where they christened their business's new location and launched an online expansion, they donated $25,000 to the Salvation Army.

It was their time, they say, to help those who helped them.

"They never judged, they just loved," Stephanie Tillman said. "Once someone gives to you like the Salvation Army gave to us, unconditionally, you feel this responsibility to turn around and give that back to other people."

The gift will help fund a room at a new family homeless shelter the agency is building to replace the current one.

The Tillmans, both 34, wanted to surround themselves Thursday evening with people who helped them cross over from homelessness: friends met while living at the shelter and members of the church there, which the family still attends.

One of their first clients, Dennis Reed, was there. He credits them with creating a successful brand for his Charlotte, N.C., nonprofit organization focusing on inner-city youth. He calls the couple inspiring.

"What company do you know that grows that much in an economy that is supposedly in a recession? Not only did you grow so much, but you were homeless and now you're thriving," he said.

Roger Glick, the army's assistant development director, who ran the Olathe shelter eight years ago, recalled how staff sat with the Tillmans and asked them what their dreams were, what they wanted for their family. Then they talked about how to make it all happen. Stephanie and Shomari did the rest, Glick said Thursday.

"What the Tillmans have been able to achieve is really what our dream was when we started the shelter," Glick said. "We wanted that wild success for everybody. It's kind of like a parent, you want the very best for your children."

When the Tillmans first got to the shelter in 2002, Stephanie and Shomari had only been married a week. They said "I do" in Shawnee Mission Park with their children and a couple of witnesses. She wore a $20, light-blue dress from a Dillard's sale rack.

Stephanie assured workers that the four wouldn't be at the shelter more than a week — too proud to admit or realize they would need more time and more help.

But they did. Now she says those months defined who they became. You can't rebuild your life until you're truly broken, she says.

Their time at the shelter made them realize they wanted to leave behind a life of alcohol, drugs and "bad choices."

In 2007, Stephanie opened Crossover Graphics. Last year, Shomari left a full-time job to join her.

He's the numbers guy, in charge of technology and operations. Stephanie throws in the creativity, the big-picture dreams and relationship-building with clients.

"I never saw it coming to this point," Shomari says, smiling and looking around the office where a half-dozen people were at their desks working Thursday morning. "But she had a vision."

Stephanie and Shomari tell their story to people they meet, hoping to erase some of the stigma of homelessness. People can rebuild, they say.

Lyn Perkins, who has attended the church at the Olathe Salvation Army facility for 12 years, has watched it happen.

She remembers a Dec. 31 party in 2002 where Stephanie gave her testimony and declared that she was starting over, that she and family would one day get the life they wanted. Good jobs. Nice home.

"You can see how God works," Perkins said. "The whole thing came together, and she's doing exactly what she said she would."

Walk into the Tillmans' 3,500-square-foot strip-mall office in Overland Park and you see their journey written out and framed on the wall. Photos of children Desiree and Isaiah on the playground at the shelter, Stephanie and Shomari praying on a bunk bed like the one they slept on, and the family standing outside Room No. 4.

For the new shelter and new Room No. 4, the plan is for a plaque to hang there, declaring it "The Crossover Room" to future occupants.

"We want to let them know you can be a success with anything," Shomari said. "That this is a moment to be a catalyst of change."

Stephanie picks up her husband's thought.

"They need to realize they have a responsibility to succeed because there'll be somebody coming up after them that need to hear their story."