The Laundry Mat~
Sometimes the greatest miracles are born out of our own needs. If you remember my last chapter, I referenced our time on the St. John's river and touched on both the challenges and joys. In my former life, going to the laundry mat was certainly not a "favorite" thing to do or even something I enjoyed. But, living on the river, alone all day with a three and two year old, the weekly trips to the DeLand laundry mat became my great escape. (Yes, I guess I was a bit bored too).
On one of my weekly jaunts, I sat down next to a young black woman who had two children close to Max and Zoe's age. We introduced ourselves and the kids to each other. Amy and I discussed how difficult it was to find time for ourselves with two little ones. She went on to describe what it was like living in the projects, how hard it was to find employment, and a little about how the "system" didn't work because you couldn't get childcare until you found employment. "How are you supposed to find a job, if you have no one looking after your kids?" New to town, she had no one to watch them. I was having a similar issue as I wanted to have some free time, but all of the day cares required at least 20 hours a week, which I could neither afford or desired. My best friend lived over an hour away and I had no family down here.
Amy and I met up again the following week and continued our discussion. She told me many of the women in the projects were in the same predicament. These were the Clinton years and welfare reform was in full swing. I started to brainstorm, thinking that maybe I could start something in DeLand where mother's could, at the very least, be able to job hunt or take advantage of the workforce training programs. My best friend who worked for United Child Care confirmed the loop holes in the system and joined me in my efforts to create an alternative.
In the meantime, Amy invited me to the projects to hear other women's stories. At first, seven showed up. The following week about eighteen women, some with babies in tow, came to talk. And in the listening and sharing, a shift began to happen and word spread that someone was really listening --and maybe something would happen. The issue was not "laziness, being uneducated, or not caring" -- the issue was self-esteem and comfort level. None of these women were going to leave their kids with someone they didn't trust, hop a bus for 30 minutes to a college campus to take GED classes, and look for employment when they didn't have anything to wear to even "try and look confident".
The Housing Director heard of these "listening circles" and became intrigued and inspired. I told her that we wanted to open a family resource center where the moms would come together and study for their GEDs and other moms would watch the children in the same building. The whole program would be based on bartering. Shortening a rather lengthy story of how we started the Family Resource Center, she offered a building in the Spring Hill area of DeLand for $100 rent.
Over forty women showed up that first week to plan. The air was charged with excitement. Furniture started appearing. And the women went to thrift stores, found paintings, books, toys, and dishes for the kitchen. "We want this to feel like a home, not a program." Homeless men who were living across the street came and installed the kitchen cabinets, helped us paint, built racks for the books, and lifted the heavy items. Mike showed up soon after we opened. He appointed himself the "doorman". He never missed a day in five years. And, he welcomed each person as they walked through those doors with a big smile.
News of what was happening traveled fast. It was a slow day if 60 people had not passed through the doors for some service or to barter and help. One memory etched in my heart is of a young woman struggling to read Cat in the Hat. I asked her why did she want to learn how to read now? She looked at me and then pointed to her son and said, "I want to be able to help him with his homework." But, the real miracle was how everyone in the neighborhood came together -- Blacks, Whites and Hispanics. If we played bingo, we played bi-lingual bingo. Families spent the evening playing bingo, sharing their food, laughing and bridging imagined barriers At Christmas, we had a white Santa and a black Santa - which delighted both the kids and adults.
I witnessed countless acts of kindness~
One woman came to the Resource Center with her husband and two small boys. They were dirt poor and had just driven down from Kentucky. The husband said, "I'll be right back. I'm going to find some food." Locking up the doors at 5pm we all knew that he was never coming back. Gloria, a middle-aged black woman who was there helping out, looked at her and said "Don't you worry child, I'll take you and your boys in until you get settled." Just like that. No hesitation.
And, my miracle, was finding Earnest. He was 6 years old when we met. It was love at first sight for both of us. His mama had 6 other children, and was soon to be a grandmother at 28. She said "Take him. He'll have a chance." Earnest, Max and Zoe grew up in the Family Resource Center; privy to watching how God moves us in the most unusual ways and for reasons not to be known immediately. I had no idea that the laundry mat was going to lead me to one of the most significant adventures of my life. Nor that hundreds and hundreds of lives would be changed, including mine.
The doors have closed on the Family Resource Center long ago, but the memories, stories and miracles continue~