The second time she saw them, she was the one needing help.
“I get goosebumps thinking about it,” Heathcoe, 49, says, two decades after that fateful day when she arrived, with her youngest child, out of money and options, to an apartment operated by the Palm Beach County homeless organization.
Now, she sits among the gorgeous, colorful pillows and architecturally complicated chairs at Contemporary Living, the home design store she runs with husband Robert at Downtown at the Gardens. She knows that most people wouldn’t make the connection between homelessness and this polished, sophisticated woman in this rarefied space.
And that’s exactly why she’s telling her story.
“I am not your face of homelessness,” says Heathcoe, who lives in The Acreage and is now a member of the Lord’s Place board. “I sure changed my perception. Homelessness is not just somebody standing on the corner with a sign…It could happen to anyone.”
Eighteen years ago, just days before Christmas, she and her infant son moved into a one-bedroom apartment at The Lord’s Place, in the aftermath of a rocky long-term relationship and a failed business. “I had to go backwards before I went forward. Being there really helped me.”
“Cynthia epitomizes our highest hopes for our clients: that they will overcome the issues and obstacles that led to their homelessness and go on to lead a productive life and ultimately give back to others,” says Diana Stanley, CEO of The Lord’s Place. “Cynthia has done all of that and more.”
A native of Louisville, KY who grew up in New Orleans, Heathcoe says she always had a passion for design and the drive she now displays in her career, but that sometimes in her youth it translated to stubbornness. An early marriage to a man in the military ended in “a messy divorce,” but not before Heathcoe learned a thing or two about her own tenacity and capability.
“I was 18 years old, in Germany, running the Red Cross on the base as a volunteer,” she remembers. “I was the only enlisted wife, and all the rest (of the volunteers) were officers’ wives. But that didn’t stop me. I’m comfortable sitting with anyone. I was always like ‘Who are you to tell me what to do?’”
When her marriage ended, Heathcoe moved to Florida to visit her mother and never left. She met her long-term partner, with whom she had children. While “there were some wonderful things about him, at some point you know that it’s not the best relationship for you.”
Heathcoe is the mother of seven children, although one of those, a son who was part of a set of triplets, died in infancy. Her design business was something “I fell into because of that tragedy. We had nothing, so I did hand painting on donated furniture. I took it to a consignment store, and that’s how it started.”
While they were together, she and her partner started a small business together, with which she cops to “making some mistakes.” But for awhile, things were somewhat stable, which is when she came across that mother and child, “standing at a bus stop (when it was) about to storm. I did a U-turn.”
The grateful mom requested to be dropped off at The Lord’s Place, and Heathcoe admits that she didn’t know what that was at the time. During their brief chat in the car, the woman told Heathcoe that she and her husband were working different shifts so that both could take turns caring for their child. When she dropped her off, “I remember thinking ‘Oh I couldn’t imagine that happening to me.’”
But it did. Two years later, her relationship was failing and “the business didn’t pan out. I had made a lot of poor decisions.” Heathcoe had moved into her mother’s house with her children, which was not a situation she could stay in forever. Her attorney finally sat her down and sent her to the Lord’s Place.
So even though “it’s hard for me to say that I need help,” there she was, full circle, on Dec. 22, 1998, with “nothing for anyone for Christmas,” sitting in front of the place she’d dropped that mother and child off before. But now “I had no car, no job, no money…I was in a dark, dark place.”
Heathcoe says that she knew that her stay at the campus “was temporary, but I knew it wasn’t where I was supposed to be. It’s where I needed to be. I didn’t become a victim. I accepted where I was and wanted to learn from that…They didn’t judge me, but allowed me to repair myself with dignity. It’s a wonderful program.”
In the six months she spent at The Lord’s Place, Heathcoe worked two jobs, one at a daycare and the other at a children’s consignment store. Once she left, she enrolled in classes at Florida Atlantic University to become a therapist, certain she could pass on some of the help she’d been given to others.
She also met husband Robert, even though she wasn’t looking for a relationship at the time. Eventually, she knew that she’d have to tell him about her past, but “when she started to tell me her story, I said ‘What happened in the past made you the woman you are. It doesn’t matter.’”
Robert says he also got a lesson in the unexpected from meeting his now wife. He’d never wanted kids, but now he’s a step-father and grandfather. And he believed enough in Cynthia’s vision to leave his job in graphic design and “go into an industry I knew nothing about. But I said ‘Let’s do it.’”
Even after the opening of her store, Heathcoe says that she felt a hole in her life, and realized “it was service. Service was missing.” So eventually she joined the board of The Lord’s Place. “When I got the voice mail (with the request), I sat there and cried. It was such an honor.”
Remembering her Christmas at The Lord’s Place without gifts, she has started a holiday drive to collect household items for other residents who “don’t have their favorite things with them, a pillow or the things that make a house a home. I want them to have something that makes it feel like home.”
Heathcoe says that part of her personal development has been learning to accept the things that she has done right, because “it’s easy to blame yourself. You have to own the good things, too.” She says she also learned that she had to forgive, not only others “but myself for the choices I’d made.”
Reconciling that knowledge is part of what propelled her to go public with her story. Heathcoe acknowledges “the huge stigma” attached to homelessness.
“I get the opportunity to speak as a graduate of (The Lord’s Place). I’m moved that I could be an inspiration to anyone,” she says. “If I can give one person hope, it’s worth it. I don’t care about anyone else’s opinion. It’s how I feel about myself that matters.”