Congratulations to Jess Heckler for Winning the January 2024 Barefoot Writing Challenge! (Your $100 prize is on its way!)

The challenge was to write an essay that answered this prompt:

Let’s start the year on a high note: Tell us about a goal you’re proud of already having accomplished.

Jess told a rousing story about overcoming adversity to achieve a long-held goal. Enjoy her winning submission:

“I kept that dream with me for many years…”
— Jess Heckler

We were living in a cave. Our apartment was on the first floor, with one window facing a fence. It might as well have been a wall — because I felt trapped. After the toddler dance class, my daughters and I would pick up lunch at some local fast-food chain, picnic on our dungeon floor, and turn on the TV to watch our favorite show, Gilmore Girls. This series is about a mom (Lorelai) and daughter (Rory) navigating life in their small town. The two love, eat junk food, fight, shop, and have a relationship more like sisters or best friends than mother and daughter.

The three of us watched Rory go from middle school through college and graduate from Harvard. We were superfans of the series. My girls and I would joke about how similar we were to Rory and Lorelai. In one of the episodes, Rory travels to Europe with her grandmother. It was this episode that had us dreaming of our own European adventure. At that time, it was just a daydream. Let’s be honest. A single mom to a 10-, 8-, 5-, and 4-year-old on food stamps was not taking any foreseeable vacations. 

I kept that dream with me for many years, and the girls would not let me forget it. We would talk about taking off on our European vacation when Cameron graduated high school, the summer before she left for college.

The kids grew and matured, as they do — too fast. Life became easier. I was blessed to get better-paying jobs, and as the girls entered high school, I started saving. I would sock away money and then get hit with a transmission that needed replacing. I would get back up and keep trying, still not very hopeful that I could make our daydream a reality. 

I remember the day I bought our five round-trip tickets to Rome. I sat in disbelief that I had done it. Then the fear set in — I still had to pay for food, hotels, trains, and museums for the three weeks we were there. I was determined. I Ubered and DoorDashed in my free time. While the girls were planning the daily itinerary, I counted every penny.  

We were in the airport that summer afternoon, waiting to board our plane to Rome. I sat, fighting back tears, very present of where I was. I was so proud of myself. I did it by myself. There were many days after their dad left that I thought, This is it; my life is this struggle now. I will never be able to give my children what they deserve. But we proved otherwise. I spent three weeks with my beautiful daughters in Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris, and Nice. 

The five of us had lunch together again. 

This time, instead of in front of the TV in that hole of an apartment… we were sitting across from the Colosseum.