Faces of Dyess: Rising above adversity

DYESS AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- On a calm, early spring afternoon in the Hangar Center building of Dyess Air Force Base, the Legends Café is busy helping Airmen. Some people are there for a quick coffee while others are simply on a lunch break. Tech. Sgt. Jerrika Stark and other staffers help each Legends customer with a smile and a focus on service. She’s a member of the 7th Force Support Squadron and serves as the community services technician, and while making drinks is not her primary task by any means, she still offers help with plenty of warmth and enthusiasm.

Stark is currently working at the Legends Café, offering her food management expertise to the café during its move from the base theater to the Hangar Center. Having been previously the Longhorn Dining Facility manager, understanding what the newly moved café’s needs as it expands into a full-fledged restaurant isn’t a challenge.

“She’s very outgoing and energetic, which is really good to have when you’re working with customers directly,” said Devan Pratte, 7th Force Support Squadron food and beverage manager of the Legends Café. “She has a lot of experience in food management, and that has helped us out a lot in the expansion of the café.”

While a lot of Stark’s work experience was acquired through service to the Air Force, her character and outward personality were shaped much earlier in life.

Every Airman has to endure their own challenges and obstacles; it’s what helps them to learn, grow and become the wingmen, leaders and warriors the Air Force needs. Stark is no exception, though some may find her personal journey exceptional. She has gone through difficulties, tragedies and hardships, and proven herself resilient time and time again, starting from a young age.

Stark was born in Bethlehem, Pa. to an opiate-addicted mother, who abandoned her shortly after birth, leaving the young child to be raised by her grandparents instead.

“I absolutely [credit] my grandmother for setting me up on a resilient path from a young age,” Stark said with a wry smile. “She always told me that life is made up of moments. Sometimes you’re going to hit a string of rough moments, and these moments won’t last forever—one day you’re going to get past them. If you live your life moment by moment, and appreciate each moment so that you can learn from the bad ones, you’re going to get through the tough times in life. You can work through all the moments as they come, no matter how hard they are.”

Life threw her a hard moment, testing her resiliency when she was only 12 years old.

Stark was at her mother’s home with her aunt the night it happened. The shrill ring of a phone cut through the otherwise peaceful evening, and with it, delivered the heartbreaking news that Stark’s grandmother had been fatally hit by a car. She had been crossing the road, walking hand-in-hand with Stark’s grandfather. It had been their wedding anniversary.

This difficult moment was only the first in a series Stark would endure. Her grandfather, miserable and not wanting to be alone after the tragic death of his wife, committed suicide several months afterwards.

In but a heartbeat of her short life, Stark had lost the two people who had cared for her for the first 12 years of her life. Then she found herself at the mercy of the court system, who had to decide her next of kin and, ultimately, her new caretaker.

Adding insult to her injury, the courts appointed Stark’s birth mother as her guardian; the same woman who had abandoned her years before.
Even when Stark was sent to live with the woman, her mother continued to struggle with an addiction to opiates. She raised the young Stark very differently than her grandparents had.

“My mother was a single parent with four kids, the other three being my brothers, two of which she had after I started living with her again,” Stark said. “She would work long hours, and I would end up taking care of the kids. There would be times I wouldn’t go to school because we didn’t have a babysitter.

“My mom and I didn’t have a good relationship either. I ended up living in the basement of her house just so that I wouldn’t have to be around her when she got home from work. It felt like I was only there to clean, cook, take care of the children and then hide away.”

Stark endured a life of neglect and abuse from her mother for years. When some children her age were celebrating birthday parties, having a sleepover or enjoying some other token childhood experience, Stark was barely able to go a day without feeling the heartache of a mother who severely mistreated her; considering her as little more than a maid.

She found a way out when she was 16 years old.

“The reason I was able to get away from my mother was actually due to an event that happened,” Stark said. “One of my brothers, one younger than me, was in a fight with my mom’s boyfriend. For some reason I snapped; I couldn’t just watch it happen. I ended up interfering with the fight to defend my brother and my mother called the police because I had gotten physical with her boyfriend.

“The cops came and separated us for a cool-down period, and I simply said that I didn’t want to go back, and my mother said she didn’t want me back. There was a court process with the emancipation paperwork; I signed it, my mother signed it, and the shelter that I was staying with at the time helped me file the paperwork. I ended up staying at the local youth center for a little while, and then I was released.”

As a homeless teenager Stark had no money, possessions or experience in the outside world; all the material items that she owned fit into a single backpack. She decided that the life of a homeless youth was still better than struggling with abuse from her mother, and lived on the streets while trying to find her own direction in life.

This new life came with its own set of challenges and difficult moments.

“The biggest challenges with being homeless are the simplest things: sleeping and eating,” Stark said. “Some shelters only let you stay for a maximum of 30 days, while others were already full of people. I sometimes had to juggle the shelters I stayed at, all while making sure I remained in a certain school district so I wouldn’t have to change schools.

”Sometimes it was rough because I wouldn’t be able to get into a shelter and so I wouldn’t have a place to sleep. As a young female, even sleeping in a public place in broad daylight was dangerous. Sometimes I just didn’t sleep.

“I’d have to do little jobs too, ones that paid under the table so to speak, just so I could have money for food.”

She moved from shelter to shelter for more than two years, but eventually found herself at the 3rd Street Alliance for Women and Children in Easton, Pa., and lived there for over a year while still attending school.

“Everyone knew afterwards, what had happened, since I remained in the same school,” Stark said. “Teachers kind of knew, and would get really quiet when I was around. I did have one very good teacher, Mr. Golding, who would help me out. He made sure that I kept up with my schoolwork, and often asked how I was doing. Whenever I got to the end of a period when I would have to move to another shelter, he would help me find one. I also had a couple friends who helped me a lot. It was a struggle, but I surrounded myself with positive people.”

When Stark was in her junior year of high school, she joined the delayed entry program for the U.S. Air Force. After finishing high school, Stark raised her right hand for the oath of service and joined the Air Force in August 1999.

“I always looked at those who served in the military with respect,” Stark said. “Whether it was in movies, stories or such, I always had a great sense of respect for those individuals. These are people who are living life and have a purpose in what they do. Ever since I was 14, I always wanted to be one of those people. I wanted my life to have that same sense of purpose.”

Stark didn’t allow the difficulties and challenges of her past to direct her career. She served with honor across multiple deployments and permanent changes of station. In December 2015, Stark successfully completed the non-commissioned officer academy course at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, and earned the title of distinguished graduate and the Commandant’s Award for her class.

Stark is currently stationed with her family at Dyess, which separates her more than 1,600 miles from where she started life.

“I have a wonderful husband and three daughters,” Stark said. “They keep me going and keep every single day exciting from sun-up to sun-down.”

Where she could have succumbed to the many difficult moments in her life, Stark rose up above her challenges and met them with an inspiring sense of resiliency which she hopes others learn from.

“No matter what you’re going through or how hard it is, it’s only one moment in your life,” Stark said. “You can get through it, I promise. After you get through this moment, the next moment is yours to take and just keep going with it. “