gina in front of a BBQ at Holly Park

Cooking Up Compassion

Gina winces as a fall breeze reminds her that cooler temperatures are on their way. For her, this changing of the seasons brings pain. “My bones don’t like the cold,” Gina says. The pain she often feels isn’t just in her bones, it comes from missing the life she once had.

Life at Holly Park

It’s late September at Holly Park, an affordable housing community for families with low incomes in the Denver Metro area. It’s owned and operated by Mercy Housing the nation’s leading affordable housing nonprofit. Residents are striving for a better life, whether that’s through a new career or furthering their education. Some residents are Denver natives, others hail from as far away as West Africa. Gina has called Holly Park home since 2007. When asked about how long she’s been living at the community she grows restless and her cheery tone turns into frustration.

gina sitting on a park bench

“I didn’t even know what affordable housing or SNAP (food stamps) were until I got hurt,” she said. Car and work accidents caused a variety of injuries leaving her with chronic pain and medical complications. Ever since, she’s struggled to maintain employment and even lost her husband. Today, she’s working to get her old life back. “I miss my morning routine. Many people complain about waking up early and getting dressed for work, but that was one of my favorite parts of the day, I always prided myself in looking sharp at work,” she reminisces thinking back to her days in the workforce — for some it’s a daily grind, but for Gina, it was a celebration of opportunity.

Building a Better Tomorrow

Now, her days are consumed by paperwork, medical testing, and doctor appointments. Navigating bills and Medicaid only complicate matters. Both her knees and back need surgeries, a costly ordeal for anyone, especially someone that can’t find employment. She was attending college for interior design when the first and most serious car accident occurred. Before living in affordable housing, Gina worked at Denver International Airport. One snowy day she slipped, her foot caught, and she rolled over her knee. Before she had fully recovered, another car accident made things worse. The burden of hospital bills and time absent from classes forced her to drop out. Her dreams were placed on hold.

gina in front of her home

Today, these pending surgeries are severe financial and emotional hurdles. They’re a daily stress, posing both a cause and effect to her struggles. She laughs at the thought of people feeling sorry for her, saying, “I have a lot, I’m truly blessed here at Holly Park. People don’t realize how important a home is!” Her stable home at Holly Park provides Gina the financial assurance of subsidized rent as well as a dynamic set of Resident Services.

She’s quit smoking with the help of an onsite smoking cessation class and often uses the computer lab to apply for jobs, polish her resume, and pursue one of her many passions — writing. She begins tapping her fingers in excitement like she’s typing when speaking about her writing. “I need creative outlets and I love writing; I do a lot of self-help stuff and would like to write more about cooking.” Cooking is more than a hobby for Gina, she uses cooking to reach out to fellow residents and neighbors that might be in need. She offers more than food when she cooks, she sees it as a way to share her strength and compassion.

Growing Up in the South

Gina was born in Denver, and her family moved to Shreveport, Louisiana when she was still a child. She grew up there and still thinks about moving back. Gina attributes her exceptional cooking and friendly demeanor to her early years in the South. “I miss it down there. With my injuries, I think the warm weather would relieve some of the pain in my joints, and I miss the people too.” Her eyes light up when asked about her passion for cooking. “I’ve always loved cooking for others and everything that comes with it. My mother couldn’t keep me out of the kitchen, I was so curious about what she was doing.” From barbecued brisket to Cajun cuisine, she’s well versed and isn’t shy about recommendations. She begins naming the best spice shops in Denver, but interrupts herself, remembering where she first learned about the world of spices — “My father loved teaching me about spices. Growing up he would take me to shops and teach me all about them from his books. I still have a lot of books and love to read about spices and herbs, and all the positive things they do for our health,” claiming to never catch colds due to this knowledge and expertise. “But cooking isn’t just about the flavor. I do it to share with other people and to make them happy. It’s a chance to chat with them. Back when I used to do catering, I was so happy to just see people enjoy my food.”

Some of Gina’s fellow residents at Holly Park have experienced trauma and are coping with financial and healthcare problems. She feels a deep sense of service and pride for her community, cooking and volunteering as much as she can. “I cook for community events and barbecues in the summer,” pointing to the newly renovated community space that has grills, picnic tables, and a playground. The entire property was remodeled recently, and she was patient with all the construction, knowing that it would keep Holly Park in service for years to come. She remarks how pleased she is with the outcome, looking to the freshly mowed lawn and waving to a resident passerby. She seems to know everyone. She doesn’t just ask ‘how are you?’ She knows her neighbors’ stories, families, and their hopes for the future, asking “how’s your mom, is your brother going to school, how’s the new job?” She’s a firm believer in the ‘it takes a village’ mantra, correcting kids if they litter or misbehave. “I don’t put up with people not getting along, you don’t have to like someone, but you must show them respect.”


Gina’s determination to get her career back persists — “Though my journey has been long and painful, it brought me to Holly Park. I love it here and get to help so many people.” She continues to work toward getting back on her feet and appreciates the stability an affordable home has created for her on her path to recovery. She feels empowered by the opportunity to serve others and always reminds herself that, “when I feel down on myself, I just go and do something for others, and it makes me feel good again.”

gina smiling and looking to the left

Gina is keeping a lot of chins up in her community, championing a creative spirit and caring optimism for the future. She points to her wonderful parents and the people that she grew up around as her source of strength. The power of a stable home goes beyond monthly savings, it creates a foundation of hope through self-inspired success.