Tuesday, January 03, 2006
Going The Extra Mile: Another Personal Story
My mom and dad were both born in northern New Jersey. My mother grew up in a very religious background. My parents were always talking about God and always around church. I didn’t understand it at the time, but the seed was planted. My parents separated when I was five. My father gave my brother and me gifts for Christmas, and we never saw him again (until 8 years later by accident). Just like that, my father who was a playboy was completely out of the picture and living a different life. My mom’s family wasn’t happy with their relationship. They wanted more for her, but that’s the way it was. When my parent’s marriage broke down, it was very hard on everyone: my mom, my father, my brother and me. My mother was left with two kids, and had to raise them by herself. A lot of women break down; they can’t handle it, but sometimes breakups are essential for woman’s survival because of abuse.
My mother worked very hard and survived all of that. Single parents do the best they can. They just have to find people to help them and have to be careful who is around their children. My mom was so busy; we still knew she cared for us. We always had food on the table, and clean clothes. I have tremendous respect for my mom. When you grow up in a situation like that, you are a little bit raising yourself. You can’t go out. We had to stay at home a lot. Lots of kids lived like that. After the bus dropped us off, we had to get “right off the bus, and get right into the house.”
I didn’t see my father again until I was 13. He walked by my mom and me and never said hello. My mother didn’t say hello. That was very painful. That was my father. I knew I hadn’t seen him in so many years. The last time I saw him, he had bought us gifts for Christmas. We had to adjust to that. I had to deal with so many emotions at once - not having my father there. I was holding in so much anger because I was holding in love for him. I don’t blame my mother or my father. It wasn’t their fault - they did what they had to do. Now that I’ve taken in so many children, I know that children love their parents and it doesn’t matter if their staying with a guardian or spiritual mother. They never forget. And when they turn 18, they look for their parents.
School was hard because it was all about survival. A lot of my friends didn’t have fathers either. There were always fights. That was just the environment. People always want to pick on you. It felt like everything was violent. I saw positive things too. Some teachers and adults in the community were really trying to do well by their children. That was helpful. We knew we had to graduate from high school to ‘get out.’ I remember at church there were many, many positive programs for youth. It’s important to be able to go to church and get encouragement. My mom was my biggest role model. She was always working; she wasn’t on welfare. Some people do need welfare, but some people don’t. It’s a cycle and some need to come out of it.
I also had an aunt who was a role model for me. She was a wonderful lady. She played a very important part in my life. When we went to visit her in the morning, she would give us breakfast. She would make biscuits. She was like a mother to me. She was so caring. What was more important than any money or gifts she could give was the care. She spent time to make lunch and supper. She got down with the collard greens and biscuits. She would ask so nicely, “Do you want more?” Her name was Aunt Alice. Kids sense if you are a caring person.
After I graduated from high school, I tried to figure out what I wanted to do. At that time, I was just starting to feel like I needed a purpose. I was eighteen then and wanted to do the right thing. When I got out there, in my relationships, it was about what are you going to do for me. I worked for the EOC (Economic Opportunity Council). I was a parent coordinator for Head Start. The children were four and five - those children inspired me. They had issues, bad issues, but they were little troopers. Some needed clothing, others had bigger issues. I just knew I enjoyed it.
When I really gave my life to the Lord, I used to go into a park and give out soup. One day I was giving out soup and felt a little tug on my pants leg, and when I turned to look down there were three cute little kids. I turned around and gave them cookies. At that moment, something sparked in me. I started bringing children into my home to tutor them. We had food and clothes, anything they needed. One child, he was about 6 years old. That little boy, he said, “Am I too early?” He said he hadn’t eaten the night before. Everyone in the community knew that we would take care of them. Even mothers came for formula, diapers, whatever they needed.
When we launched the tutoring program, I felt that education would help the children become positive members of the community. We taught the children how to clean the table after they ate. Many of the children don’t have the basics. What are ‘the basics?’ The basics are like, wash your hands, and hang up your coat (they would just throw them on the floor). If you are leaving the table after a meal, throw your plate away; clean the table. General hygiene in general is an issue – we would say brush your teeth, comb your hair. A lot of kids that I have dealt with over the years didn’t like reading because they weren’t encouraged. We had a Haitian student in our program. She was an A student in elementary school. I tutored her myself. Some teachers encouraged her more than others. She had a teacher, Mrs. Johnson. Mrs. Johnson was excellent. She would tell us exactly what she wanted. She would say, this is how you need to do it and that’s how we did it. Some teachers don’t have patience. They don’t know they have kids with problems. They don’t know that sometimes, you can get more out of the child by encouraging the child. I have two sons. One is in New York and one is in Georgia. Both graduated from college. I always pushed them to get their education and to do better. Their father passed away. He did encourage them, yes he did.
In the community, I would see the children and get to know them as well as their parents. When one mother was deciding whether or not to go into rehab, I said, “I will help you get on your feet.” I took her daughter while she was gone. One time I knew two parents were having problems after they separated. I took in their four kids: one boy and three girls. The boy was six; the girls were eight, nine and eleven. Parent’s break ups are very hard on kids. They lead to a lot of emotional problems.
For many parents, you are a friend or an enemy. You can never look for a pat on the back. Parents can be vicious, but kids can be just as vicious if they don’t like what you are asking them to do. I’ve had social services turn up at my home with some crazy stories that they had to check out. Every child I work with is different. It’s not easy. Most of the time, you see their pain. It’s not like you get use to it. You have to learn their way. You have to create an environment where they feel safe and comfortable, and sometimes children still don’t respond to you because they have such a longing for their parents.
I am taking care of two boys right now, Stephen (9) and Johnny (10). They have been the most challenging children I’ve taken care of. Before they came to me, they had to go to the hospital because they had marks on the back of their head. They would throw cars at each other. When children go to the hospital a couple times hurting themselves, something is going to happen. And then there was a fire. You can’t explain why they can’t see their mother. It was hard for the two young boys to adjust. The court said they couldn’t be alone with their mother; the father had to be present all the time. But you can’t replace a mom. The boys were robbed, robbed of a mother’s touch, robbed of her walks with them, robbed of having a mother to just do things with them. Sometimes John would be so angry he would just bite his hand. Now, he just shuts down. What gets you about Stephen is that he doesn’t talk like he is nine years old. He sounds like he is much younger. He hasn’t had a chance to be a little boy. Stephen wants to call me Grandma. Right now, this is the safest place for him. John is having more trouble than Stephen. He thinks everyone is against him. Emotionally, neither of them is stable. I always instill in every child, there is a future for you, and my goal to get you back with your parents.
Once, their mother came to my house unannounced. There was a court order and she wasn’t allowed to come in. It broke my heart. John said, “Are you’re going to send my mama away?” I allowed her to speak to them from outside. She was just outside the screen door and was seriously checking the boys out like a bear checks her bear cubs. She said, “Don’t you ever forget that I’m your mother.” I told them to tell her “I’ll never forget.” She couldn’t touch her children, and she couldn’t come in. That must have been hard on her. These kids have been through so much. They have seen so many bad things. You can’t expect them to function perfectly. They still function and try to make something of their lives.
What are my hopes for the children? My biggest hope is that they will have a relationship with God and that God will help them be the best they can be. I hope that when they see children’s fighting, they will not fight. I hope that they will see a bag lady and have compassion, not to look at people as society does, but as human beings who need help and hope just like everyone else. I hope that the children will go back into their schools of their youth and make a difference. I hope they help their communities so those communities can emerge. I hope they get their education. No dropouts. All through the bible, God uses children. That is a wonderful thing.