Mother-son duo driven to succeed
To say Karee Upendo had a difficult childhood would be an understatement. Her mom was an alcoholic, her dad was addicted to drugs and she was removed from her Madison home at 7 to be placed in her grandparents’ custody.
Upendo’s grandmother was disabled, but they raised her and her brother as best they could. By 16, Upendo was pregnant and had emancipated herself, working 40 hours a week while trying to finish high school.
“It was really difficult for me to take care of myself doing things that most kids don’t have to do,” Upendo said. “And then being pregnant and taking care of a whole different human was really scary.”
The father of Upendo’s child had a mental illness and the relationship became abusive. Eventually, she and her son, Alex Hart-Upendo, were homeless.
“It was a lot of shelter hopping when I had Alex,” she said. “We were homeless for two to three years in that transition, bouncing from shelters, staying overnight at friends’ houses, it was really hard.”
The pair were washing off in public bathrooms and moving around a lot.
“One thing my mother told me was that we’re homeless, not helpless,” Alex said. “We just don’t have a home to call ours.”
Alex’s biological father’s mother, Heidi, saw the two of them sleeping in a car in Racine and realized they were homeless. She let them stay with her and get back on their feet.
Fast forward to today, and Karee and Alex are in a much better place. Karee got married and her husband, Avery, adopted Alex. And both Karee, 29, and Alex, 11, have started their own companies: Karee Couture and Build-a-Bow.
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