LIVERMORE -- When Victoria Choate was a student at UC Berkeley, she wrote a sociology paper titled "Breaking the Cycle."
In it, she recounted her grandmother's and mother's troubled history with men prone to drinking and domestic abuse. The irony was not lost on her when she found herself in a situation in her mid-30s, married to a man she said wasn't good for her.
"I wrote a paper on 'Breaking the Cycle,' and here I am still trying to break the cycle," Choate, 41, recalls thinking to herself at the time.
She said her husband left her in 2006, and "it was the best and the worst thing that could have happened to me" she said. Her life hit rock bottom, and she found herself at Tri-Valley Haven's homeless shelter looking for a much-needed fresh start.
It wasn't her first time at the nonprofit's shelters, said Choate, now a volunteer at the Haven's Buenas Vidas Thrift Store.
She was just 8 when her mother landed at the nonprofit's domestic shelter with her and her younger brother after her father, who battled alcoholism, tried to hit her mother.
"I had to come full circle," she said. "It was one of the hardest times in my life."
Her family stayed at the shelter about a month as her mom worked to regain her footings, taking two jobs and fighting her way out of the danger zone for her children.
But there was still more to be done to break that cycle. It continued to haunt her as she grew older, Choate said.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1994, and after working a number of professional jobs, she said she lost her footing. She found herself, at age 34, a mom with a young daughter -- Madelyne, now 11 -- returning to Tri-Valley Haven. This time, she took refuge for six months at the nonprofit's Sojourner House homeless shelter.
"My husband had left me and took everything," she said. "And I was sliding into the danger zone. I was at the same point that my mom" had been, she said.
But the Haven's transitional program was the life raft she needed. It helped guide her through finding a job and regaining her financial footing. Buoyed by the help, she found a $50,000-a-year job at a translation services company. She found a second lease on life and began believing in herself again. But she was laid off in 2009.
Until then, "I had the white picket fence and everything," she said, wistfully. "I felt like the rug had been ripped from right under me."
Since then, she has lived modestly and relies on county assistance. She is looking for a job, lives in a Livermore apartment and has rewarding relationships with her daughter and with a good man who is "just the blessing I deserve," she said.
When she had to choose a spot to volunteer for the CalWorks welfare-to-work program for a year, the Haven's thrift store seemed a natural because she never forgot what it was like to be on the receiving end of those services. Her required year ended six months ago, but she enjoyed it so much she has continued to volunteer.
She hopes to find a job mentoring and inspiring others to learn from her example. She can relate to the hardships faced by those who feel trapped within a cycle and knows how hard it is for some families to accept help. For that reason, she's pleased with how Tri-Valley Haven -- which runs two shelters, a food pantry and a thrift store to serve victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, the homeless and the poor -- handles its holiday gift program.
Ann King, Tri-Valley Haven's executive director, said Share the Spirit donations this season will help 925 families throughout the region to shop among donated and purchased gift items at the nonprofit, so parents can present their hand-selected gifts to their families. It also provides grocery vouchers for those in need.
"We have the parents come shop for gifts for their family, so the celebration is put on by the family, not by us," King said.
Choate says it helps "families keep their dignity and confidence," and she believes it's these types of goodwill acts that can help families "break the cycle."
Being able to give back to Tri-Valley Haven as a volunteer has helped her do that as well, she said.
"I can't stop smiling .. .it's my happy place," she said, while rifling catalogs and pricing donated items for the store.
"Here, they help you to get your glow back," she said, "and circle you back in the right direction."
Contact Joyce Tsai at 925-847-2123. Follow her at Twitter.com/JoyceTsaiNews.
The Share the Spirit campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, benefits nonprofit agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. To help, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to https://volunteer.truist.com/vccc/donate.
Readers with questions, and corporations interested in making large contributions may contact the Volunteer Center of the East Bay, which administers the fund, at 925-472-5760.