For Rachelle*, childbirth wasn’t miraculous. It wasn’t exhilarating. It wasn’t a treasured moment surrounded by proud parents or a partner cheering her on. As her heart rate dropped dangerously low, she feared that she might not survive at all. Her healthy newborn son was carried away while she was given a series of blood transfusions to save her life. As a single 19-year-old in foster care, Rachelle was filled with dread over the possibility that she wouldn’t be there to care for her son, the same way her mom couldn’t be there to encourage and protect her.
Rachelle’s mom was killed when she was nine. “It’s hard for me to talk about it. Even just a few years ago, I wouldn’t talk to anyone,” she says. She has a daily reminder of her beloved mother each time she looks in the mirror. A photo of Rachelle’s mom on her cell phone is almost indistinguishable from pictures of Rachelle herself.
“When my mom was taken from me, I went to live with that lady,” she says, referring to her great aunt who abused her badly. She won’t even invoke the woman’s name. “That was the worst day of my life.”
Even though Rachelle despises the way she was treated by her great aunt, she still struggles to let go of the idea that she is partly responsible for the abuse she endured. “I wouldn’t say I was a bad kid, but I was hardened. I would act out because the kids used to bully me in my new school. They would make fun of me because I was one of the only African-American students. My great aunt believed in a certain way of disciplining kids and I was giving her hell.” Rachelle was going through hell, and instead of comforting her and advocating for her, her guardians abused her.
“I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I went to the school and told the social worker. Even the social worker started crying because she saw that one of my cuts was bleeding badly. My aunt had been angry, so she had beaten me with an extension cord. They had to call an ambulance because my eye was swollen shut. I was bruised and cut up. In the hospital I was treated for a lesion on my arm and cuts on my head. I was physically battered, but I had finally broken free.”
Rachelle liked the foster home where she lived when she first joined the Sheltering Arms program, but she moved into her own space when she became pregnant with her son Zair*.
“I really don’t like this place,” she says, gesturing at the barren living room of her Brownsville public housing unit. “When I first came to view the apartment, it was disgusting. My oven wasn’t working. My sink was leaking. The toilet was broken. I have a window in my room that’s broken.” The cement floors are covered with thin linoleum. It’s easy to see since she has no living room furniture to cover it, no changing table, no rug. “I can’t afford a couch or even a crib,” she says, listing furniture staples that most families count among their basic possessions. She points out the open windows which don’t have shades. She worries that the fumes from her neighbors’ drug use will waft into her home.
Now nine months old, Zair crawls around and naps on a mattress on the floor in the otherwise empty room. Signs downstairs warn about asbestos abatement and lead paint cover-ups. The Brownsville neighborhood where her apartment is located makes headlines for exceptionally high rates of gun violence and poverty. According to The Citizens’ Committee for Children, infants are three times more likely to die before their first birthday in Brownsville than infants in Borough Park, an affluent neighborhood.
In spite of it all, Zair is beating the odds so far. “The pediatrician says he’s above average in every area of health and development,” says Rachelle, though she worries that the bar is set low for babies like hers, given how many babies in the neighborhood are born with developmental disadvantages from poverty, poor education, poor health, or other risk factors affecting their parents. Zair is a social baby, smiling and laughing at strangers. He turns to the sound of his mom’s voice in the other room like a sunflower turns to face the sun. He doesn’t cry and goes right to sleep when it’s naptime.
Sheltering Arms is also helping Rachelle advance her economic mobility so she can be a stable provider for her family, independent of any public assistance. Through our Preparing Youth for Adulthood program, she is signed up to earn her high school equivalency at a site which she chose for its proximity to a home health aide training center. Her social worker is helping her find day care for Zair so she can attend both the education and the vocational training centers simultaneously. After she builds her resume as a home health aide, she wants to train to become a nurse.
Despite Rachelle’s aspirations and Zair’s sunny disposition, they’re no match for systemic inequality by themselves. Brownsville is plagued by pervasive challenges: high infant mortality rates, poor mental health, dropout rates, crimes rates, and other environmental symptoms of social inequality. Worse still, moms like Rachelle are often blamed for the poor outcomes of their children which result from generational poverty. Whether they accept public assistance or not, poor, single moms are accused of bringing poverty on themselves, even though they take on parenting without so many of the support systems and privileges their critics enjoyed as children and as parents.
The rhetoric about alleged “welfare queens” has infiltrated the political sphere and had a serious impact on funding for resources for Rachelle – from mental health services to job development, and from early education for Zair to basic furniture for her home. While the debates rage on over public spending for child welfare and public assistance, children suffer. In New York State, several politicians have proposed cutting or withholding funding from New York’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) until the agency can improve outcomes and eliminate instances of abuse and neglect. But underfunding child welfare programs is neglect. You only have to look at Rachelle’s empty home to know that the standard provisions for moms in foster care aren’t enough for them or their children to be healthy and successful.
That’s where Joy and Barb come in. Joy is in advertising and her mom, Barb, is a retired nurse. “Now that we’re retired, we’re able to give more of ourselves and our time. We want to set an example for our retired friends of how we can be involved in a hands-on way, a way that you can make an immediate impact and meet people where they are,” says Barb of her and her husband’s unique volunteer partnership with Sheltering Arms.
“Hands-on” is an understatement. Joy, Barb, Craig, their family friend Ben, and even Joy’s children, came together to outfit Rachelle’s apartment with everything she needs to create a healthy home for Zair. They corresponded with her to pick out a toddler bed, a dish set, and more. Driving up from Pennsylvania, they filled a minivan so completely with new furniture and supplies that it was impossible to see through any of the windows besides the windshield. They built shelving, a couch, and recliner, hung curtains, and filled cupboards with toys and books. They even brought light bulbs and lights, and pots and pans, and cleaning supplies, the way any family with the means to do it would help their child set up her first apartment.
At a time when our society is more divided than ever by class, race, and gender lines, Sheltering Arms is transcending these divisions and building bridges between youth in need and everyday citizens who can help. Though they come from an entirely different background, Joy, Barb, and their families were able to close a funding gap for the things Rachelle and Zair need. In doing so, they helped restore the kind of personal affection and care that was stripped from Rachelle when she lost her mom a decade earlier.
“We got the desk so you can study when you’re in nursing school,” said Joy, showing Rachelle some of the surprises they had installed in the apartment. “One day Zair can do his homework here too.” As a retired nurse, Barb vowed to support Rachelle in any way she needs when she gets to nursing school.
Surveying her new home, Rachelle’s eyes filled with tears. “Now I don’t have to feel embarrassed of where I live,” she said. “It feels good to have their support because I haven’t been able to cover everything on my own. I haven’t known what it feels like to have someone care what happens to me. I feel like Zair and I are home now.”