By Stevie Smith ’16
Toni Robinson doesn’t know what March 29, 2016 would have held for her if not for Evangel University. In fact, she doesn’t know if March 29, 2016 would have happened at all.
Through what she calls a journey marked with grace, March 29 found Toni on stage in Spence Chapel. The senior journalism major addressed her peers as the featured speaker, and as she described grace in her life as “the ugly beautiful,” she was reminded of the fair share of ugly in her past.
Toni’s journey from St. Louis to Evangel was overwhelmed with devastating circumstances. Raised primarily by her mother as one of the eldest of 11 siblings, Toni was homeschooled through middle school at the conviction of her mother, who felt it was the right thing to help avoid their rough and potentially dangerous schools.
The perils of their neighborhood became a devastating reality on Thanksgiving Day when Toni was 13, as her older brother was tragically killed in an incident near their home. Toni was left to cope with the loss of her brother and, soon after, transitioned into public school so her mother could go to work.
Despite her circumstances, Toni excelled as a student. She made good grades, played basketball and joined Junior ROTC. But behind the scenes, Toni struggled with drug use, depression and unhealthy relationships.To make matters worse, the entire family dealt with difficulties while trying to secure permanent housing. They shifted from place to place, battling house fires, joblessness and eviction. At times, they considered themselves homeless, relying on local shelters, food banks and government assistance to make ends meet.
Toni’s problems came to a head on her 18th birthday. Her mother sat her down, having witnessed some destructive patterns in her life, and challenged her to make a choice about what kind of role model she was going to be for her younger siblings, and where her future was headed.
Weeks later, Toni attended a Christian conference with her mom, and grace finally took hold. “What makes grace amazing is not the depth of our stories or sins, it’s the glory given to God,” Toni said. “I was able to experience a salvation that has caused God’s grace to be evident to me on a daily basis ever since.”
As Toni walked away from her former habits, her future seemed full of new possibilities. Toni decided to pursue a college education, and Evangel seemed to be the answer.
Four years later, Toni says her ugly past has morphed into something beautiful at EU. She’s poured out her talents as a student while advocating for diversity in the community, writing for The Lance and working with special needs children at Camp Barnabas.
“For me, grace coincides with being grateful,” she said. “I wake up every day and say thank you for where I am, and my way of showing gratitude is serving others.”
For Toni, Camp Barnabas fused together many passions in her life. She started working as a cook for the hundreds of individuals with special needs who attend the camp. As she began serving others, she was awakened to the idea of using her skills as a chef to advocate for and stand beside those with special needs. She hopes to someday open a restaurant that provides employment and skills for these individuals and others who are underrepresented in the public sphere. As Toni reflects on where she has come from, she uses the beautiful grace in her life as fuel to pursue her dreams. Toni says she isn’t the least bit worried about the future.
“Compared to where I’ve come from, I have so much now,” Toni said. “If I can survive being homeless, I can do anything.”