Flanked by street corner drug deals and threatening alleyways, 1435 Hervey Avenue Apt. B was Shalonda Jones’ protection. The three-bedroom apartment in a North Chicago project shielded, to some extent, her young eyes from a neighborhood no child should grow up in. Let alone the youngest, and only girl, of seven.
Crack pipes would be left around; people carried knives on street corners and in the alleys; a gun might even be lying in the bushes, according to her brother, Brian. With every family she saw struggling to pay rent or nearby shooting she heard, Jones vowed to make it out.
“I was the type of person, when I saw bad, that made me want to do the right thing,” she says. “That neighborhood really helped shape me into the person that I am today.”
Today, Jones, 18, is a junior counselor at the Western Golf Association Caddie Academy, a summer program on Chicago’s North Shore created in 2012. It encourages teenage girls to apply for the Chick Evans Caddie Scholarship, which awards full college tuition and housing to financially challenged caddies who embody stand-up character and academic excellence.
Thanks to the program, Jones, who once considered joining the military with doubts her family could afford college, will attend Marquette University this fall. She’s among seven scholarship winners from her age group at the WGA academy.
She’s the first of her seven siblings to attend a “big man” college, Brian calls it, as his time at junior college was the only form of post-high school education among the six boys.
Jones is still in awe about her path, sometimes having to remind herself when she wakes up of where she’s heading next. But after a rocky upbringing, taking on an activity she didn’t know existed and coping with the death of her brother Donovan last summer with the academy’s help, Jones is well-equipped to take on a future that was hardly expected.
‘I was just never like that’
For more than 11 years, Jones slept in between her parents. Four of her brothers shared two rooms that had bunk beds and the other two slept on the couch when they visited home. It was where she could fall asleep each night, knowing she was safe from the streets.
Shootings would happen a couple of blocks away at night, and she could distinctly hear the ringing of gunshots as her father, William, told everyone to get on the ground.
Jones grew up with girls unable to provide for their children. She knew people who dropped out of school and succumbed to the pressure of drugs, alcohol and smoking. She even witnessed a few of her brothers fall victim to the negative effects of the neighborhood.
“Seeing all that, something triggered in me,” Jones says. “I was just never like that.”
Jones stayed on the straight and narrow, thriving in school while she learned the true value of a dollar from her parents. Her father worked as a paint prepper at Canal’s Auto Parts and her mother stayed at home until taking a job as a food server at the Great Lakes Naval Base when Jones was in first grade.
All the while, Jones was humble, loving and strong-willed, Brian said. And though he and his brothers teased their youngest sibling, they kept her grounded, too.
“I always stayed on her, myself personally, because I knew the things in the streets,” says Brian, 29. “Fortunately for her, she stayed away from that.
“There was just something about it that was just different, it’s just baby sis.”
Jones says she never thought her family would make it out. They house-hunted for years, but every time, they ended up back using the same overcrowded bathroom. They were surrounded by the same row of similar looking apartments with a barbecue joint down the street to the right and another apartment complex to the left.
It wasn’t until she was 11 when they actually had their belongings packed that Jones was finally convinced she was moving somewhere new.
‘I honestly don’t know what made me take it, but I took it.’
With a park next door and an upstairs room to herself in a quiet neighborhood in suburban Waukegan, Ill., Jones actually felt like she was living in a home.
Her room was painted pink and she hung posters on the walls to give it a “homey” feel. At first, she slept with a nightlight because not being sandwiched between her parents felt weird to her.
In the Thomas Jefferson Middle School lunch room during Jones’ eighth grade year, a counselor asked students if they wanted to fill out the Daniel Murphy Scholarship, which provides high school opportunities to Chicago youth who wouldn’t be able to otherwise afford them.
“No one wanted to do it, no one,” she says. “I honestly don’t know what made me take it, but I took it.”
Two essays and three weeks later, Jones and her father took a cab to be interviewed along with six other families. She thought she “killed” the interview and a few weeks later received an envelope notifying her she’d be going to high school for free.
Jones’ principal convinced her to attend Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart, a prestigious all-girls school in Lake Forest, Ill. After her freshman year, Jones came across a summer activity fair sponsored by the Murphy Scholarship Fund. She could work at an aquarium, take a trip to Costa Rica or carry golf bags for three summers before qualifying to apply for a full college scholarship.
Jones didn’t know what caddying was and she says the only two words she knew about golf were “Tiger” and “Woods.”
She and 11 other girls living in the Evans Scholarship House at Northwestern University comprised the inaugural class of the WGA Caddie Academy. Jones would wake up at 6 a.m., be shuttled to Westmoreland Country Club between 6:30 and 7 and wait until she had a group to go out with. She’d average one round a day, maybe two toward the end of the summer, and have lunch at the course before returning to NU’s campus for dinner.
But for the seven weeks, long, strenuous rounds were about more than just carrying a golf bag around for the wealthy.
“Caddying really helps you deal with different personalities,” she said “Every day is something new. You keep a smile on your face, that’s all you really can do.”
‘Being in the wrong place at the wrong time’
Jones scrolled through her Facebook feed on the morning of July 20, 2014 and read posts in which people prayed to “Donovan’s” family. Her brother was named Donovan, but Jones wondered which one the messages referred to.
She went to a nearby restroom, called home and knew something was wrong by the tone of her father’s voice. Her parents weren’t going to tell her that her then-26-year-old brother had been killed earlier that morning – by what Brian attributes to “being in the wrong place at the wrong time in a bad neighborhood” – because they wanted her to focus on caddying.
She broke down in tears in the bathroom and wanted to go home. She ignored all calls and texts and says that immediate coping process was one of the toughest moments of her life. But it was her inner circle at the academy that served as her second family and notes, candy bars and sympathetic thoughts flooded her way.
“You can hope for that and you can certainly dream for that but it’s another thing to truly experience it,” said Mike Maher, who oversees the Caddie Academy, his voice wavering. “For these seven weeks, they caddie and they live together. Those two ingredients have truly evolved into pure magic.”
After that summer, and heading into her senior year, Jones applied for the Evans Scholarship because she’d completed the required three summers of caddying. Later in the fall, she arrived home to find a big envelope with the result she prayed for every night.
Nobody was home to share the moment, but she broke down into tears of joy.
‘I never thought she’d be going to Marquette’
William raves about the NuWave Oven seen on infomercials, saying “you can cook anything on that bad boy.” He lists off other essentials his daughter will need for college: laptop, pillows and blankets.
“It hit me, but it hasn’t hit me,” he said. “I never thought she’d be going to Marquette, no way.”
Jones still has a month left of her last summer caddying, but this one is different than the past three. She didn’t have to come back to the academy, but did anyway. She still aims to walk two rounds a day and even misses 5 o’clock dinner because of the occasional 12-hour work day. She’s also become the “unofficial official” tour guide of the Scholarship House.
“She’s got a smile that is 100% contagious,” Maher said. “If you walk into our home there’s a 98% chance you’re getting a tour of it from Shalonda.”
Jones marvels at where caddying has taken her, and even more so at what’s to come now that she’ll be an active scholar at school.
She struggles to muster words to describe how exactly she feels about her future, but it’s a future several times in doubt now with a definite destination.
“You ask any of the girls, it’s life-changing,” Jones says, “to be able to show my family and my younger nieces and nephews that success is possible in life.”