“When it comes to my family, my friends, and mostly anybody that knows me, if there is something I can do for you, I will do it. No ifs, ands, or buts.”
Editor’s Note: Everybody has a story. GG’s House is a three-part series that tells the story of one woman, Irene “GG” Alexander, who has spent her life caring for her family, children from her neighborhood, and nyone in need of a helping hand. In 2020, her family was marred by death and violence. Now the Madison community is giving back to her in a big way. The first story in the series is GG’s House, Part 1: A Murder, a Photo, and a Family Shattered. The final story is GG’s House, Part 3: Unveiling ‘Love in Action.’
Following the death of her 11-year-old daughter, Anisa Scott, to gun violence, Ashley Rios knew she would never be able to live in their home again.
She didn’t want the experience of being in her house without Anisa there. She didn’t want to experience looking down the hall without seeing Anisa standing in the bathroom doing her hair. And as much as she wanted Anisa to stop getting up in the middle of the night to eat ice cream, now she longed to hear the freezer door opening around 3 a.m. when Anisa went for her late-night snack.
“I never spent another night in my apartment after Anisa got hurt. I think I was just in fear of … I don’t know. I mean within two days she got hurt, and she was gone,” Ashley says. “That’s like a sleepover at her dad’s house. I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it.”
Anisa was shot on Aug. 11 while a passenger in a car driving down East Washington Street in Madison. She was rushed to American Family’s Children Hospital but never recovered from the gunshot wound to her head. Three men have been arrested and charged in connection to the incident. Her family made the decision to remove her from life support at 11:11 a.m., Aug. 13.
When Ashley decided to move, her mother, Lorene Gomez, and her grandmother, Irene “GG” Alexander, stepped in to help her pack up her home.
“When Ashley got close to the door, she just went down to the floor. She couldn’t hold it together,” GG says. “We had to go in without her to pack up. When we were almost done, she came back. She says, ‘I can do it.’ She wanted to do Anisa’s things herself. And that’s what she did.”
Ashley and her youngest daughter, 6-year-old Anija Ragland, moved into GG’s house in Madison. Ashley’s younger brother, Jovani Gomez, was living there, too.
By most standards, GG’s 1,100-square-foot, two-bedroom house was full. People were sleeping in the basement and on the screened-in porch, plus a hospital bed was brought into GG and her husband Patrick’s room to provide additional comfort after he was diagnosed with end-stage kidney failure and then liver cancer. But when Ashley asked for her grandma for help, GG didn’t hesitate to open her home.
“I would never have said no to her,” says GG. “When it comes to my family, my friends, and mostly anybody that knows me, if there is something I can do for you, I will do it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Everyone in the house was feeling the hurt, just in different ways.”
That hurt continued when GG unexpectedly found her younger brother, Robert Brown, deceased in his Madison apartment on Labor Day. Then, on Nov. 9, GG’s husband passed away.
On the heels of all the loss, GG received a phone call from Michael Johnson, the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, at the end of November. He told her she had three days to pack up her house and he would find her a temporary place to stay while volunteers gave her place a makeover.
Lorene Gomez, GG’s only daughter, says her mom initially felt uncomfortable being the recipient of a community-wide act of kindness.
“I may be biased, but I have seen this woman do the fishes and loaves thing so many times. She would never turn anyone away or let anyone leave our house hungry,” Lorene says of her mother during a recent interview from her Atlanta home. “I said, ‘Mom, just take it in. And know the life you’ve lived is speaking for you.”
GG was born on New Year’s Day, 1953, in the small town of Charleston, Mississippi.
The fifth of 12 children, she was 6 years old when the family left Mississippi and moved to the housing projects in Chicago. GG says she remembers a lot from the brief time she lived in Mississippi, “none of it good.”
“During those times, it wasn’t so fun, there,” GG says. “I’d rather not talk about it.”
The one story she will share comes up while talking about how much Anisa loved chicken nuggets and barbecue sauce. GG is allergic to tomatoes and Anisa knew to keep the sauce far from her great-grandma.
“When I was about 5, still living in Mississippi, my mom had a garden in back of the house,” GG says. “Mom said they were looking and looking for me and finally someone found me sitting in the garden, in the tomato row, eating tomatoes.”
Later that night her whole body swelled, her eyes were swollen shut, and she wasn’t talking. Her mom took her into town to see the doctor.
“He told her he was sorry, but I wasn’t going to make it,” GG recalls. “He told my mom, “You can leave her here, or you can take her home.’”
GG’s mom took her home.
“Back then, people had all kinds of old remedies. So she rubbed goose grease all over my body and laid me on a bed in front of the wood burning fireplace. I just laid there for two days, not speaking but breathing,” GG says. “After two days, I woke up starving. That’s how I know I’m allergic to tomatoes.”
Shortly after her near-death experience, GG’s family moved to Chicago. In 1967, she met the boy living next door to her on Ogden Avenue. He started carrying her books to school for her and holding her hand.
By the time she and Patrick married in 1979, they had three children: Alonzo, Lorene, and Patrick Jr. Patrick’s twin, who they named Paul, died after only a few days.
“That tore us apart,” GG says. “We both said no more kids after his death.”
GG now watches her granddaughter struggling to comprehend the loss of her own child.
“It is hard for any parent to lose a child. Even though I experienced grief and hurt after him [Paul’s death], it is totally different for Ashley with Anisa’s death,” GG says.
GG raised the three children while Patrick worked outside the home. Every Friday night, the family went out to Papa Charlie’s Pizza. GG and Lorene remember dinners were always eaten once everyone got to the table.
“Growing up in our house was like Little House on the Prairie,” Lorene jokes. “We ate dinner together every night and my parents stayed together and had three children together. I place so much value on that.”
To this day, Lorene says she rarely eats a big breakfast because of all the big breakfasts her dad made for them most mornings when they were growing up.
“We weren’t cereal children,” Lorene recalls. “I’m talking steak and eggs and Malt-O Meal.”
When GG and Patrick’s children were grown, they left Chicago and moved to Madison in 1997 where other family members were already living. When Lorene decided to move to Madison with her three children and was searching for a daycare center, GG quit her job at Oscar Meyer to watch Lorene’s kids.
“I was totally against her putting them in child care,” GG says. “I just feel like we need to watch our own.”
In 1998, GG earned a certification at Madison College to operate a home daycare center, allowing her to watch her grandbabies and other children in her home while their parents worked.
The following year, they bought the house on Madison’s north side that 21 years later, Johnson and the Boys & Girls Club would rally to have the community remodel. Patrick would die before seeing it.
“I’m so grateful for all of this. It is so unexpected. Words cannot tell you how I feel,” GG said on her last night in their soon-to-be-remodeled house. “I just wish my husband could have been here to see all of this take place.”
Dan and Melanie Hawk, the owners of ACME Household Services, have teamed up with Johnson and Jenny Meicher Santek, chair of the Boys & Girls Club board, on projects before. Several years ago, they partnered to renovate an apartment, and Dan Hawk and Johnson have traveled to provide hurricane relief on several occasions.
But GG’s project is the biggest they’ve tackled to date.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t know if we’d be able to pull it off. We’d never done a home renovation before,” Johnson told UpNorthNews during a visit to GG’s house during the renovation process. “I said, ‘Ms. Irene, worst-case scenario, I might get your house painted. I know I can personally pull that off.’”
After Johnson posted a “help pay it forward” ask on his Facebook page, the response was swift. Carmen and Sandra Corteras, the owners of TC Carpet Care, didn’t realize who GG was until after they arrived in her house and saw the photos of Anisa.
“Once you hear the story, you just want to help,” Carmen says of GG. “She’s all our grandmas right now. She doesn’t know it yet, but she has two new granddaughters, right here. I feel like if you can do something like this to help someone else out, why not?”
The sisters ended up donating $20,000 in supplies and volunteer hours to the project. They not only removed the old carpet and installed new carpeting, but renovated both bathrooms, their employees volunteering to work after their normal work days to get GG’s house done. The Hawks, through ACME Household Services, also donated $20,000 in supplies and volunteer hours to renovate GG’s house.
“Anybody that she would fall back on is gone,” says Dan Hawk. “She has done so much for our community, especially helping out other kids. Now she needs a little help. It is time for us to step up for her and be someone that she can lean back on. I want her to know we are here for her.”