Jenna Bolyarde’s life has definitely had some dramatic twists and turns.
Over an 18-month period several years ago, Bolyarde was homeless. She lived in her car or slept on couches or even on the bathroom floor of a hospital.
As if that wasn’t enough, at the same time Bolyarde was also an IV heroin user who had lost custody of both of her children. She spent time in jail, on probation and in multiple rehabilitation programs.
“I was broken,” said Bolyarde.
Today, four years after successfully completing rehab, Bolyarde not only has a home again, but works full-time for Catholic Charities at Napa’s Nightingale Center as a site specialist. She also actively volunteers with the homeless community.
“I’m a living example of what a success story looks like,” said Bolyarde, 36.
Continuing that success story, on Sunday Bolyarde will travel to Washington, D.C. to advocate for homeless policies and housing at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness, sponsored by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
The nationwide gathering “is a fountain of knowledge,” she said. “I want to make a contribution.”
Homelessness has become an important topic in Napa County.
According to a Napa County report on homelessness, in 2015 there were 1,198 persons literally or at risk of becoming homeless in the county.
Of these, 1,037 were adults over age 18. An estimated 61 were under age 18. A total of 68 were veterans.
The majority of those persons had at least one physical or mental health condition, such as mental illness, alcohol and/or drug abuse, chronic health condition or physical disability. Many had three or more conditions.
Bolyarde said she wants to help those who are homeless or have been “to use their own voice when it comes to advocating for themselves.”
Drawing from her own “lived experience” with homelessness, “I can converse from that way of thinking,” said Bolyarde.
As a voice for the very same people the National Alliance to End Homelessness wants to help, she can share “the barriers and the traumas that these people are living with.”
She wants to hear and exchange ideas about innovative programs, new ideas and policies for the homeless.
“This is a new area in my life,” she admitted. “I’ve never affected policy before. It’s a big picture concept. It can be intimidating.”
But, “I’m not afraid to ask questions and voice my opinion in a respectful and tactful way.”
Fifteen years ago, all of this would have seemed like a dream to Bolyarde. At age 12, she began smoking cigarettes, eventually becoming addicted to drugs.
“Some of it was pure curiosity of youth,” she admitted. But, “I had some traumas in my life that led me to not trying to feel so much,” she said.
By age 19 “I was strung out on heroin. At 21, I ended up giving birth to a little girl who was born addicted.”
Child Protective Services (CPS) removed her daughter from her care.
“Two years later I did the same with my son and CPS took him away,” she said.
“I thought I was going to clean up,” she said. “But I just didn’t have the resources or the wherewithal.”
Bolyarde described feelings of self-hatred and self-loathing. Giving birth to a “tox pos” baby – or infant born addicted to drugs — “contributed to me feeling like the biggest piece of crap that ever walked the face of the earth.”
“I’ve been to eight rehab programs and only completed one,” she said. “I was on probation in two counties for 10 total years. I’ve flunked out of drug court. I’ve done jail time. I’ve overdosed. I almost died plenty of times,” including being hospitalized for endocarditis, an infection of the inner lining of the heart.
After entering a program at the Napa Community Corrections Service Center — run by what is now called GEO Rentry Services — and participating in a separate 12-step recovery program, her life is now back on track.
“I got a higher power – Christ,” she said. “And my whole world changed.”
Her parents let Bolyarde move in with them and support her. She is also very active with the Napa Community Seventh Day Adventist church.
“I am surrounded by people who love and care for me,” she said.
Bolyarde also joined the board of the Napa Continuum of Care, a consortium of non-profit, faith-based and government agencies that supply homeless services in Napa County.
From there, she became a member of the Consumer Advisory Board of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
According the NAEH, the Consumer Advisory Board (CAB) consists of members who have experienced or are currently experiencing homelessness to inform the work of the organization and to serve in advocacy capacity, both at the federal level and in their local communities.
The primary goals of the CAB are to elevate consumer voices in policy discussions; develop consumers as key advocates in important issues related to homelessness; and to inform the Alliance’s work in designing and advocating for policies on homelessness.
This is her second time attending the Washington, D.C. conference, the cost of which NAEH has covered.
While all of this is amazing, that doesn’t mean Bolyarde’s life is perfect.
Her children were adopted and are being raised by family members — her son by her parents and her daughter by an aunt. Usually they call her Jenna, not mom, she said. She lives at home with her parents.
“I’m still making amends for what I’ve done,” she said.
“It’s very empowering to claim my past and not be ashamed of it,” said Bolyarde. “I’m not proud of some of the things I did but what I’m doing with what I’ve experienced is something I can hold my head up about.”
Her life has value now, said Bolyarde.
“When I think of going back to my old ways, I think of all the people I would let down. There is no way I’d do that.”
It’s very empowering to claim my past and not be ashamed of it. I’m not proud of some of the things I did but what I’m doing with what I’ve experienced is something I can hold my head up about. Jenna Bolyarde, homeless advocate
“It’s very empowering to claim my past and not be ashamed of it," said Bolyarde. "I’m not proud of some of the things I did but what I’m doing with what I’ve experienced is something I can hold my head up about.”