For the third year in a row, The Denver Homeless Ministry founder Tanya Cangelosi has answered the Lord’s call and is taking a homeless person to Rome.
Catholic Travel Centre President Scott Scherer met Tanya at the Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, Calif., this spring. He learned of Tanya’s ministry, her mission to take yet another homeless person to Rome, and the story of that young woman named Shyla. And the Lord’s plan again was set in motion. Scott immediately offered CTC’s support.
Shyla’s story begins with gratitude and beauty, and in her words: “I want to start off by saying my life is a blessing. Don’t get me wrong—I lost the world. I’ve been through hell and back since I was born. But that doesn’t stop me from seeing the beauty in the world.”
Shyla definitely lived through more than most young women her age. Because her birth mother had numerous issues, Shyla spent most of her early childhood shuffling between her mother and her great-grandparents. When Shyla was six, her mother passed away. She never knew her dad. Her great-grandparents, whom she knew as her mama and dad, raised her until she was 14, when her great-grandfather (dad) died. His passing was hard on Shyla. She ran away and ended up at a family crisis center.
Time passed and Shyla’s heart broke from missing her mama. She wanted to return home, but social services at the crisis center said her great-grandmother was too old to care for her (although, Shyla says, that wasn’t the case). After a number of years of foster care, running away, and couch-hopping, Shyla finally got back in touch with her mama. It was her mama who convinced her to live on her own and go back to school.
“My mama passed away when I was eighteen,” Shyla recalls. “She was the one to hold me together, so when she died I relapsed in a way and didn’t want to go to school. I fell into this depression. I started stealing. Eventually, I lost everything—again. I still had my apartment, but I didn’t know how to survive. Struggling for food and clothes, and drinking a lot. I was lost.”
Everything happens for a reason
“But something hit me — The Holy Spirit, I think,” she goes on. “Something made me completely stop doing all the bad things I was doing. I started going to school. One step at a time, I picked everything up, piece by piece. Not a day goes by now by that I don’t reminisce on the past. With every struggle I faced and I am facing today, I’m not negative about life. I always have a smile on my face, and it’s rare when I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason.”
Shyla met Tanya and was introduced to The Denver Homeless Ministry five years ago, when Shyla was 17. She aged out of the foster care system, and was struggling for basic needs — food and clothes. Shyla worked at McDonald’s and was staying in an independent living environment designed for youth getting out of the streets. Shyla was scared living there, explaining, “People are molested and often shot there, but at least it was a place out of the cold.”
During that time, she says, “I kept seeing Tanya everywhere … at my job at McDonald’s, when I would be walking around Downtown Denver … I would always, always see her. I knew her, but not that well.”
Tanya’s experience of Shyla was similar – she saw her everywhere. Tanya knew it was the Lord telling her Shyla should be the next person to go to Rome. She knew because she prayed about it, like she always does.
“My daily prayer…every morning,” says Tanya, “is ‘Lord, please tell me what you want me to do and where you want me to go. May every fiber of my being unite in reverence to your name.’ And then I say, out of habit ‘and please make it plain.’”
About a year ago, when Tanya saw Shyla on the street, she asked her if she’d like to go to Rome, and Shyla said, “Why me?” to which Tanya replied, “Because the Lord picked you!”
Tanya recalls that moment: “She got so excited – and shouted, ‘Yes I want to go! I’ll do anything you want me to do.’ So I gave her a guidebook of Rome to choose the things she wanted to do, and she said ‘I don’t care what we do – I’ll do anything!’”
Rome changes everything
Shyla recalls that same moment: “When I realized it was for real, I kept questioning, ‘Why me God, why do you want me to go?’ Great things started happening for me right away. I started looking for a new place to live and a month later I got my apartment, I got a new job at Auntie Anne’s, and my life started to change in so many positive ways.”
Tanya couldn’t agree more. “Shyla’s whole life has changed since the day the Lord laid her on my heart as the person to take to Rome this year,” she says. “Once you go to Rome, you cannot go back to the streets!
“It started almost immediately,” Tanya continues. “We walked out of the post office after applying for her passport, and Shyla said, ‘I’m going to get a job.’ Then she got housing in Lone Tree, outside Denver, which was the best thing that could have happened to her.”
Shyla’s social circle has changed, too. “The people I used to call my friends are not in my life any more just because they were negative and not a good influence,” she explains. “I have made friends with my co-workers and talk with them.”
All of these changes have occurred, and Shyla hasn’t even left for Rome!
A recent Facebook post from Shyla says it best: “I’m kind of having a hard time writing this because there’s no words to explain how my life has changed. It’s been remarkable. It truly has been a blessing. My faith went up 20 times stronger – it’s like I’m a new person, my view on the world is different than it was a month ago. Literally the day after you (Tanya) asked me (to go to Rome) everything started to change. It was a huge blessing not that it wasn’t before. I want to thank God I want to thank you (Tanya) and Father Michael for this wonderful opportunity, especially those who donated because the trip would be nothing if they didn’t and I am more honored to go!”
Making it happen – or rather, letting the Lord do His thing
“I’ve never not had enough money to do the things the Lord has asked me to do – He always provides the money,” says Tanya.
The Lord’s hand was in that meeting of Tanya and Scott earlier this year. Scott and Catholic Travel Centre are helping Tanya and Shyla by donating accommodations at the four-star Mediterraneo Hotel, located conveniently in the heart of Rome. CTC also has arranged some special meals, a tour of the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum, and airport transfers.
“When Tanya told me about how they stayed in a youth hostel in years past, and how someone was in their beds when they returned at night, I thought, ‘that’s the last thing someone who has experienced homelessness needs,” Scott explains. “I knew we had to create a better experience for her and Shyla. After we booked their hotel, we thought, what else can we provide? And so we worked with Tanya to add some of the other features to make their trip even more memorable.”
Shyla couldn’t be more enthusiastic or grateful. “I am so excited and I really can’t believe I’m going!” she exclaims. “I’m so grateful to all of the donors and people who are supporting me to go to Rome. This is definitely a once in a lifetime trip!”
After Rome? Anything is possible.
“I always had faith in God,” Shyla says. “I do believe God wants me to do bigger and better things with my life. I definitely want to go to school. I want to be a social worker for kids who are in the foster care system in New York City, so I am working toward that. Eventually I want to move to New York and go to school. Ever since I was little, I wanted to go to New York City – something about the bigger city is attractive to me.
“I always say life is like a roller coaster,” she adds, “and if you don’t get on the ride, you’ll never experience the adventure.”
Please pray for Tanya, Shyla and Father Michael as they set out on their Rome adventure, September 4-9, and for The Denver Homeless Ministry.
Read more about Shyla’s story at The Denver Homeless Ministry, and follow her Rome adventure on our Catholic Travel Centre Facebook page.