‘Rome changed my life,’ says former homeless woman

Elise Ann Allen
|Senior Correspondent

ROME – When Shyla Montoya first came to Rome in 2016, she was a wayward 20-something just beginning to clean up her act after a stretch on the streets, still clinging to the anger and bitterness that had accompanied her for much of her life.

For nearly the entire trip, Montoya struggled to contain the resentment that was bubbling up uncontrollably, and still it sometimes came out in often-blatant hostility toward those around her, including those traveling with her and the people she met along the way. At the time, it seemed almost a disaster.

Yet, looking back now, that trip marked a turning point. Almost six years later, Montoya is completely transformed: Despite a slew of health problems, she has found faith, forgiveness, and a family she never expected.

“Rome changed my life a lot,” Montoya told Crux, noting that after she first visited in 2016, “all the negative people started to leave my life, and all of the positive people came into my life. God had a lot to do with that.”

Montoya was invited to go to Rome in September 2016 with the Denver Homeless Ministry (DHM), established by Tanya Cangelosi – a former homeless woman who launched the ministry to serve people, who she believed were falling through the cracks, as both equals and friends.

For the past eight years, with the exception of 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Cangelosi has offered one of her “street friends” the opportunity to travel to Rome as a means of broadening their horizons, reminding them that there is more to life than their immediate circumstances and that change is possible.

Given the remarkable changes in Montoya’s life and the crippling physical challenges she’s had to overcome, she was invited to return to Rome with the DHM for this year’s March 2-9 trip but had to pull out at the last minute to have brain surgery related to a tumor for which she’s been receiving treatment.

Montoya, 28, never knew her father and was shuffled back and forth between her mother and her great-grandparents until she was six, when her mother died, and she went to live with her great-grandparents full time.

When she was 14, her great-grandfather died, and Montoya was crushed. She ran away and was eventually placed in a group home. When she tried to return home to her great-grandmother, who she always called “Mamma,” Montoya was told she couldn’t due to her great-grandmother’s age and the teen’s penchant for getting into trouble.

She was then put into foster care, but soon ran away and got by for a time couch-hopping with friends before eventually returning to the group home. She decided to go back to school and start putting her life on track, but when she was 18, her great-grandmother died.

With no family and feeling alone in the world, Montoya began to drink and steal to get by for several years, until she decided to look for a job and was able to get low-income housing.

Shortly after getting back from the 2016 trip to Rome, Montoya had a conversion, and started attending church, where she met a couple who immediately took her under their wing, and who have since adopted her.

It was this couple Montoya turned to when, in 2019, she was diagnosed with grade 2 astrocytoma, a type of brain cancer.

“I didn’t know who to call, so I called my mom and dad, Charles and Theresa, and they immediately came to the hospital,” Montoya said, calling her health troubles – which have included seizures, surgeries, and a litany of medications – a blessing in disguise.

“Having health problems has been a wonderful testimony, so I can encourage others. Don’t get me wrong, it has its downs, but I see it as a blessing,” she said. “I don’t see it as a downfall. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I do, but I have to live, because no matter what storm I’m facing, I know that in the end the rainbow will come. I will learn how to dance in the rain and learn as I go.”

While she was not able to attend this year’s Rome trip as planned, having had to undergo surgery for a brain bleed resulting in more than 40 stitches a week prior, Montoya said she hopes to travel to Rome with Cangelosi in October, once she’s recovered from her surgery.

“My hopes this time I go to Rome is that I will be able to go for myself, and not for others, not for social media. When I went last time, I went for social media, I went for my family, I didn’t go for myself. This time, I get to enjoy it because it’s a blessing from God,” she said. “It’s all been a blessing from God.”

Speaking to Crux, Cangelosi said that when it was time to start planning this year’s trip, Montoya was the obvious choice from the beginning.

“The difference is Shyla is so dramatic. It’s a day and night difference from the person she was when I took her to Rome five years ago; she’s very humble, and sometimes way too apologetic for her actions, because once I’d forgiven her, I’m done.”

Cangelosi, who bore the brunt of Montoya’s anger during the last trip, said she prefers to forget the whole thing, and wants to think of Montoya “as the person she is today: warm, loving, kind to everyone, and always has a smile on her face even when she has tears in her eyes.”

“She wanted so bad to prove on this trip how much she had changed. I don’t think that is needed, but I would still love for her to see Rome with her new eyes, her new love, and her new optimism,” Cangelosi said, saying she hopes to bring Montoya back in October, if her doctors approve.

Yet even though Montoya was unable to come on this year’s Rome trip, it had a significant impact for the others who came.

While the DHM only offers the trip to one person, Cangelosi allows others who are interested to join in, provided they pay their own way, or at least part of it.

This year Cangelosi was joined by three others – Rachel Mora, who served as a chaperone; Cassi McPhail, who used to be homeless but changed her life and now works as a medical assistant at a pediatrics office; and a woman named Patti Fairbanks, who has raised 13 foster children – burying some of them – and who Cangelosi met at the Women’s SafeHouse Thrift shop where she works.

Cangelosi said that even though Montoya was unable to join the group in Rome, the trip went on “with her in mind.”

This was especially the case at the beach in Anzio, she said. The group drew hearts for her in the sand and sent pictures, because one of Montoya’s favorite things “is to collect random hearts.”

Cangelosi said Fairbanks paid her own way, but she had Mora and McPhail put a down payment on the trip but decided to cover the rest of it for both of them because she felt they had earned it and deserved to go.

McPhail, 29, had a rough childhood that landed her on the streets at 17. She spent two years living either in her car with an ex-boyfriend, or under bridges with other homeless youth. However, by 19, she was determined to change her circumstances and began working full time.

Now she has a steady job and shares an apartment with a friend, and, speaking of her past circumstances, says “I have not been back to that position since.”

She took part in the DHM trip to Rome in March 2020, paying her own way so she could join Cangelosi and Angelique Vargas, the DHM’s selection for the trip that year, for a visit that turned upside down quickly when the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic broke out and things quickly began shutting down.

Every day, something else on the group’s itinerary would suddenly become off limits as Italy scrambled to stop the spread of infections, meaning the group spent most of the time wandering around the streets and looking at Rome’s most iconic monuments and museums from the outside.

McPhail chose to come back this year so she could see the things she missed, and she wasn’t disappointed.

Speaking to Crux, McPhail said the 2020 trip was “disappointing, scary, and exciting at the same time…everything day by day was getting shut down and we didn’t get to experience much of the touristy side of Rome.”

“We never knew what was going on. Every day different news would come out, and we had to rush out of the country before getting stuck out there,” she said, but the experience was also exciting because “I got to experience a once in a lifetime adventure through the streets of an abandoned Rome, walking around where there was literally nobody else outside.”

Among the highlights she listed were the food and being able to see the beach for the first time during a day trip to Anzio, which Cangelosi added as a surprise outing for the group. She also enjoyed shopping outings in the rain, and even the adventure of missing a train stop and getting stuck in Naples overnight.

“I never thought that I would make it to Italy, let alone for Italy to be the only place I have ever really visited,” she said.

“Knowing that I can in fact travel outside of the country without family and figuring things out through my anxiety makes me feel more confident,” she said, adding, “My past made me who I am today, but it will not ever hold me back in what my future has to offer.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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