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Former abused mother's success no pie in the sky

It's not just about the pies. It's about overcoming abuse and hardship and making something of yourself.

Shirlene Hicks Mullen, also known as the "Sweet Potato Queen," went from an abused young single mother to running her own pie-baking business.

She handed out her sweet potato pies late last week to residents of Carolyn's House, a transitional home for abused and homeless women and children.

"My message to the women and families here is to hold on to your dreams, and we can all succeed with determination and strength," she said.

The building on Sixth Street -- named for Carolyn Van Schaik, a community activist who died in 2003 -- currently houses 19 women and 35 children, all refugees from a hard life.

"I don't know where we would be if Carolyn's House wasn't here," said Roxann Luchese, a victim of domestic violence who moved in seven months ago with her 11-year-old daughter, Morgan.

"I couldn't take it anymore," she added, referring to the abusive relationship she was in. "I just walked out. When we came here, we had nothing. This is a brand-new start for us."

Luchese is a switchboard operator at American Secretarial Services, an answering service on Pine Avenue. Her daughter is an honors pupil at Niagara Middle School.

Carolyn's House, a program of the YWCA of Niagara, opened in August 2005 and contains 19 fully furnished apartments, ranging from studios to three-bedrooms. Residents stay from six months to three years, said Theresa Martinez, the director.

Mullen, who runs Specialty Pies by Shirlene, bakes her pies in the kitchen of Carolyn's House and sells them to customers from Amherst to Youngstown.

"Shirlene is an example of what women can accomplish despite facing difficult circumstances," Martinez said. "She's been through what many of our residents are going through, and for them to see firsthand such a successful outcome, both personally and professionally, only strengthens the mission of this program."

Mullen was raised by a single mother in the projects in East Chicago Heights, Ill., becoming a single mother herself when she was 16. She said she was constantly being told that she would never amount to anything and that no one would ever want her.

"I always believed that I would be something," said Mullen, now married and a mother of three children. "I also believe that if I can do it, so can the women in Carolyn's House."

Mullen started her pie-baking business in 2003, after friends and family kept telling her how delicious her sweet potato pies were. This holiday season, she went through 600 pounds of potatoes to bake more than 380 pies. Many of the pies come with creative toppings, such as chocolate chip, coconut lime and orange-flavored cranberry.

The spotlight Friday was on Carolyn's House, but not everyone knows about it. Luchese didn't know about it until she fled in desperation to Passages, an emergency shelter operated by Family and Children's Services of Niagara, and was referred to the residence.

Carolyn's House is currently full but has a waiting list and takes applications. The phone number is 278-9662.


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