This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for learning about and working with Our House, a homeless shelter for newborn babies and their families. I first became involved in this organization after the birth of our second child a few months before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. I can remember rocking my baby during the night as planes flew over my head from Dobbins Air Force Base and being scared about the world he would grow up in.
When a friend called that fall and asked if I would serve as treasurer of Genesis, an organization that went on to merge with Our House, I said yes.
I knew how hard it was for me -- someone with a husband, a house and support from my family -- to take care of two children under 2 years of age. I could not imagine being homeless with a newborn. I knew I had to help. Since then, the organization has grown, providing more services, helping create a self-sufficient family for every child. One of their programs provides education for adults to become teachers in the child care center.
Janice (not her real name) is a former resident who graduated from the program and earned her degree. She is in the grace business. She meets her clients where they are and transports them somewhere else. Her bright, twinkling eyes, warm smile and welcoming demeanor help her do that. But it is Janice's background and life experiences that have led her to be empathetic and understanding of her students and their families who are experiencing homelessness.
Nine years ago, she found herself suddenly homeless and unemployed. When her son was 3 weeks old, "the altercation happened" involving her son's father, she said. "(I)t was the last of many." Janice left and stayed with her sister, who became afraid for her safety as well.
"I was so depressed," Janice told me, talking about her experience as a homeless mother of a newborn. "I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to come from being not pregnant, having a job, having my own place, to meeting this man, being beat on, getting pregnant, not having a job, not having an education, not having anything."
After moving around, she found her way to Our House, her son in tow. She said: "They pretty much held my hand through everything. I got him into Our House. It was just amazing. I've been working with kids for years ... I knew what quality looked like and the first day I was so comfortable. I was excited -- I knew right off it was going to be the greatest fit for the both of us."
While Janice's son was enrolled in the early learning center, Janice's advocate at Our House helped her earn a GED certificate, find housing and enroll in the Child Development Associate Degree program. Her class proved to be strenuous; it started with more than 20 students, and only about a quarter of those enrolled graduated.
Janice said she cried during her graduation speech. "I never in my life started something major and finished it," she said. "It wasn't easy, but the program kept me there." Even though Janice was still struggling with depression and had trouble finding traditional housing, she had persevered.
Her classmates were from different states and different backgrounds. "We would have these arguments," she said, with some saying: "No, it is not just babysitting. We all learned we are really educating these kids. We are not babysitters, we are teachers."
Years after she had to flee an abusive partner, taking her baby with her, Janice is living life on her own terms, and her son is in second grade. "I'm now in my own apartment and he goes to a charter school," she said.
Now that Janice is "a completely different person" (her words), she is using her compassion and understanding to help others who are experiencing temporary homelessness. "It makes them feel comfortable when they hear that I've been through the program; that I've been homeless; and that I'm doing great," Janice said. She knows that by giving families shelter to live and an education to thrive, she meets them where they are at that particular moment and helps them rise to a new level.
I've never been homeless, but I've had Christmas with money so tight we could not buy a tree. My mother wrote down in the back of her checkbook every penny she spent; Spam was a frequent entree; and our electricity was temporarily cut off, but we were always thankful to be together. This year, I am thankful for being together with my family and friends (we are hosting 16) and being able to give back to others. Happy Thanks and Giving.
To find out more about Jackie Gingrich Cushman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.