CHAMPAIGN — Cathy Garner said she learned how to be a self-sufficient working mom when she spent two years living in the Center for Women in Transition in the 1990s.
Now she's throwing the baby shower she always wanted — and never had herself — for the moms and babies living at the center.
Garner, 47, of Champaign will host a community baby shower from 2 to 4 p.m. April 7 at University Place Christian Church, 403 S. Wright St., C.
All shower gifts and donations will benefit clients of the Center for Women in Transition, a nonprofit organization that provides services to homeless women and their children and victims of domestic violence.
"I never had a baby shower because of my situation," Garner said. "I was bringing two girls into a messed-up world of mine, and now I get the opportunity to have a baby shower and celebrate my girls."
Garner was a client of the center from 1997 to 1999, but her troubles began years before with poor life choices, she said.
She began drinking at age 16 and married an abusive alcoholic, and kept drinking for another 14 years.
Garner said she has been sober since 1996 but became homeless a year later when Section 8 housing closed in Decatur where she was living at the time.
"I was working a full-time job in Decatur and whatever I was making was putting us into hotel rooms," she recalled.
Garner said she came to Champaign and found the Center for Women in Transition. The center had rooms for her and her girls, Angel Zanarini, now 24, and Felicia Ceaser, now 22, and they moved in.
During her two years at the center, Garner said, she severed connections with her alcoholic husband, reconnected with her family and regained her self-esteem.
"When you're in an abusive relationship, your self-esteem is zero," she said.
Living at the center also helped her learn to be a better person and a better parent, she said.
"I'm a very kind person, but I had to learn to take care of myself so I could take care of my daughters," she said.
A longtime waitress, Garner earns a living as a waitress at the Cracker Barrel in Urbana — a job she said she loves — and shares an apartment with one of her daughters.
She can also look back on her earlier years with some humor, she said.
"My financial situation became a lot greater when I wasn't trying to take care of drunk men," she added.
Her future plans: She hopes to work her way into management at Cracker Barrel, and she intends to continue being of service to the Center for Women in Transition and to others trying to beat an alcohol addiction by telling her story.
Mary Wallace, fundraising and volunteer coordinator at the Center for Women in Transition, said Garner is a past board member and has also been a big help as a spokeswoman.
"She has this tremendous energy," she said.
Wallace said she was excited when Garner contacted her about the baby-shower idea. The center has posted its wish list for items most needed for its client moms and babies on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/CWT.CU.
Diapers in sizes 3, 4, 5, and 6, Pull-Ups, and Diaper Genies are all among the biggest needs, she said.
Gifts can be brought to the shower or dropped off at other times at the center at 508 E. Church St., C. Cash donations can be made through the agency's main website at http://www.cwt-cu.org/html/donations.html.
Garner's daughters, Felicia, a Parkland College student, and Angel, a restaurant assistant manager, will be co-hosting the shower with her.
"They've become great women," Garner said.