When I first started my not-profit fundraising career I worked for an agency that served homeless women and their children. These were women living in homeless shelters, often with multiple children from infancy on. The mothers were mostly teens into their early 20s with so few choices and obstacles that it’s impossible for me to fathom.
When I was there, about 14 years ago, the agency was in its infancy but with funding from some of Boston’s wealthiest supporters it has grown exponentially. The concept is amazing–provide quality daycare to pre-schoolers while their mothers can focus on getting their GED, finding work and essentially do what they can to secure permanent housing.
Whenever I needed a break from my work, to clear my head and remind myself what I was raising money for, I would go down to the infant/toddler room. It’s impossible to explain how instantly that place put things into perspective for me. They were gorgeous kids, just like kids anywhere, loved, happy, stimulated, silly, all with personalities of their own. Seeing them at naptime, on their mats or cribs, was ridiculously perfect, and even though my daughter is now 10, there is still something in watching her sleep that makes my heart melt.
For reasons that only the gods know, a little boy, still not yet walking or talking, was plunked down into my life, not by a stork or anything, but by the kind of fate for which there is no explanation. Kids have always been drawn to me because I pay attention to them, but F__ and I had a “connection,” a certain invisible line that attached us together. I’d watch him doing his thing through the glass door to his room, and when he would spot me he’d come running over with his arms reaching for me to pick him up. I’d often come down at nap time to settle him down when his teachers couldn’t. I watched him move through the stages of walking and talking.
Throughout this time, I got to know F’s mother, C__ , who would often defer to me when F__ would get unruly or cranky. She was at a loss sometimes for how to handle F__ and his older brother G__ who was about 4 at the time. She was just 18.
C__ was quiet and walked around covering her mouth because she was embarrassed by her teeth. She often wore a scarf around her head because she hadn’t had time to do her hair. The boys always looked great, hair done, sometimes in donated clothes that were a bit too big. I used to think that she was ashamed to be around me but now I know, after all these years, that she was just grateful.
After I left this particular job, I stayed in touch with C__ and the boys. My ex-husband and I would take them trick-or-treating in the fancy neighborhood where we lived, both left cradling a sleeping child in our arms before putting them to bed on our living room couch. We felt great sadness driving them home, to what is called “scattered site housing” in one of the worst neighborhoods in Boston. The kitchen ceiling was falling down, a cat with fleas went in and out and the stairs to the basement were about to fall apart. One time someone called the police when they saw my husband trying to wrangle F__ from running around a Friendly’s parking lot because they thought he was abducting him.
C__ and I became pregnant at around the same time. It was my first child and her third. She had met a seemingly wonderful man who had become the male role model the boys had never had, and he was thrilled that he was going to be a father. During her pregnancy there were some health issues that came up that she didn’t quite understand and she asked if I could be the contact for her doctors, something called a medical proxy. I followed her through her pregnancy, as I was monitoring my own, and she had a beautiful baby girl, 2 weeks before mine. I was the one and only visitor she had in the hospital.
My ex and I went to visit at the holidays, bearing gifts for everyone. As we were leaving one year C__ pulled out beautifully wrapped gifts for the three of us–a glass chess set for my husband, a bubbling rock fountain for me, and a doll for my daughter. This from a woman who barely had anything.
Within the year, we had lost touch. Phones were disconnected, the Dept of Children and Family Services wouldn’t give me any information but I was able to confirm that F__ was attending the middle school in the neighborhood where they used to live. I asked the administration to give my phone number to C__ which she never received. And then, one day, 5 or so years after losing touch, I checked to see if G__ was on facebook, and he was. I e-mailed him and that night, I got this message from C__:
“…you have been a big part of my life and i never for got about you. i talk about you to everybody cuz you were there when i need you and when i had nothin and nobody. im a much stronger women now thanks to you. from this day on i want us to never part again.
you have have been my angel from god . you have been though everything with me and the things i tell you my mother will never know cuz you care and have a better understanding. i thank you i know you have your life with your family.
now when thing get the best of me and i can’t handle it no more i know you will be there. i now i don’t have much but when ever you need us we are here for you to.”
When I visited them for the first time after so many years, I cried seeing how big and beautiful the boys had become. F__, now 15, and I just stared at each other and smiled. My daughter and R__, C__’s little girl went upstairs to play while I sat on the couch with C__, the boys right next to me, listening and grinning.
She seemed empowered and after being on a waiting list for ELEVEN years, received a Section 8 certificate so she could find a better place to live closer to Boston. My daughter is already planning on what Bratz doll she’s going to buy R__ because she remembers how much she loved them.
C__’s words are some of the most meaningful I’ve ever received in any context. I’m not motivated by the need to be recognized or praised. In this case, I was lucky enough to have been captivated by a child who brought me into a world I never would have entered in any other context. Pay attention to the things that compel you for you never know what places they may take you.