Adversity has struck often during Cliffvonia Rigby’s 34 years. She was sexually abused as a child and raped in her 20s. Her mother threw her out of the house. And she was forced to sign away custody of her two grade-school-age sons in the hope they would grow up in a better environment.
Now she lives in a room at Miami Rescue Mission with her two-year-old daughter Elizabeth, eking out a living working at a daycare center and volunteering at a church in Fort Lauderdale.
She works with children at CharLee Preschool & Childcare in Oakland Park. “I teach them their ABCs, their shapes and colors,” she says. “We do circle time, where we paint, paste cutouts, whatever comes to mind, just give them paper and let them go.”
“I did not see myself helping children,” says Rigby about her life journey. “God opened this door. I just went through it.”
Rigby was born into a difficult family situation in Freeport. At age nine, she says she was sexually abused by a close family friend. Along with her mother and sister, she moved to Chicago and then, at age 14, to South Florida, where she lived in various places in Broward County.
She graduated from high school at age 17, then considered college, but her immigration status as a non-citizen scuttled that plan. She couldn’t get financial aid to help her pursue higher education.
Rigby has been raped several times throughout her life, the most recent assault in her late 20s. She admits that probably defines her in ways she can’t explain but says it is not all of who she is. “I want people to know me, not to feel sorry for me,” she says, adding that she doesn’t mind discussing these tragic events. “I just learned that if you don’t get things out, then you won’t heal.”
In her late 20s, Rigby lived with her mother and two sons, Jeremiah and Isiah. But the home became tense as mother and daughter argued constantly, and Rigby feared violence. She was working a low-paying job and didn’t have enough money to move out.
She says she wanted what was best for her children, so she made the difficult choice to sign a legal document granting guardianship of Jeremiah and Isiah to her ex-husband’s mother. “I wanted them somewhere where they wouldn’t have to witness [the arguments],” she says.
Several years later, Elizabeth was born. Rigby felt the girl’s father was not on the “same path” as she was, and so they separated. Now she is raising Elizabeth on her own.
Recently her mother kicked her and Elizabeth out of the house after a dispute. They were left with no place to stay, so they spent a couple weeks in a hotel, which quickly drained Rigby’s meager savings.
Now, she stays at the Miami Rescue Mission, which has several shelters in South Florida that help the needy and homeless.
She volunteers on weekends at Christian Life Center, helping and playing with small children. There, she has found comfort in “people that you know trust in Christ.”
At CharLee Preschool & Childcare, where she has worked since 2020, she does more than just teach numbers and letters. “I feed them, I change their diapers, and let them go off and play,” she says. Rigby glows when she talks about her work with children, a true passion she hopes to continue.
At Miami Rescue Mission, where Rigby has stayed since August, all residents must show pay stubs and outline a plan of savings they must keep to improve their situations. Residents are allowed to stay for up to six months.
Joyce Benjamin, the case manager assigned to Rigby through Miami Rescue Mission, says she is putting an effort to save. “People sometimes come into the program and don’t have a good habit of saving money.”
Benjamin describes the program’s goal to “get them into affordable housing and be able to maintain it. She is confident Rigby will succeed.