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What Can We Do If We Work Together?

Patch columnist Christine Wolf writes about a young woman she met who is trying to make her way in the world, with the help of some generous strangers.

Back in June, I received an email from a writer friend requesting a favor. While spending time writing at a local coffee shop, she’d befriended one of the shop’s employees, and she hoped I could help this young woman.

"I have come to know and like very much a young woman who works [there]," my friend wrote. "Her job is how she pays for college. She is studying early childhood development, so I have enjoyed encouraging her ambition. Anyway she asked me if I knew anyone who was looking for a nanny. She has worked too long at [the coffee shop]. It is getting in the way of her dreams. 

My problem is, I'm out of the loop when it comes to knowing families with young children.  Perhaps you know someone who might want a nanny. Anything you can do...would be a big help."

Scanning the email, my gut reaction was to think of friends with childcare needs, but as the doorbell rang and the dog’s bark pierced my eardrums, I slammed the laptop shut.

One week later, I saw my friend at our weekly writers’ group.

“Did you happen to see my email? About the girl in the coffee shop?”

“Yes,” I apologized, “and I meant to respond. I’m sorry, but I don’t think I know anyone looking for a nanny…”

“You’d really like her,” the friend said. “She wants to go into early childhood education. Weren’t you once a teacher?”

“I was,” I said, intrigued.

“She’s stuck in this job…and they keep cutting her hours.” That was her situation…but then I learned about the woman. “She’s really, really smart. And genuine. And positive.” My friend described a determined young woman facing roadblocks. “If she can just get out of this lousy job and on a better path toward her dream,” my friend said, “it could make all the difference.”

We exchanged emails over the summer but my schedule kept interfering with a face-to-face meeting. I was out of town when she sent me her LinkedIn profile…and her cell number…and I promised to get in touch once things settled down. She could have written me off right then and there. But she didn’t. 

We finally met last week at the new Starbucks on Sherman Avenue, right after her shift ended at a competing coffee shop. She walked in carrying a carrot cake muffin as a thanks for meeting her, and I wondered if I’d even be able to help her. After all, I’m no longer a teacher…

I bought a bottle of water and we sat in a quiet spot, getting to know one another. She shared pictures of her young daughter on her cell phone, pointing to the headbands and outfits she’d only recently taught herself to make.  

I learned that she’d graduated from ETHS…lives in a Rogers Park apartment but wants to move back to Evanston once she can afford it… that she started taking classes toward a degree in education at Truman College in Chicago but had to quit when her daughter’s father lost his job…that she can’t re-enroll at Truman until she pays her $700 balance… that her rent is $600/month…that she barely makes enough to cover her bills…and that the coffee shop she works at was forced to cut shift hours due to increased competition downtown…that her daughter is a little fashionista…that she applied for a job at the new Trader Joe’s…that she is 24 years old and just recently got her driver’s license…that her family (originally from Jamaica) encouraged her to go into nursing – a career she knows just isn’t for her…that she’d signed up for the Youth Job Center’s WILL program (Women Invested in Learning and Livelihoods) four months ago and was anxious to meet her mentor…

While telling me all of this, never once did she complain.

“Career-wise, what do you think you want to do?” I asked.

She described teachers she’s seen at her daughter’s preschool, some of whom she admires but others who, as she explained, “Had no business working with children.” Having a young child, she said, helped her appreciate the value of early childhood education. “I want to work with young children,” she said, “but I also want to minor in business so I can own my own children’s boutique someday.”

Though I still have contacts in Evanston’s early childhood community, the school year had just begun; the chances of finding an opening--even as a part-time teacher’s aide--during the first week of school were nearly zero. In that moment, I hated myself for not having connected with her sooner.

Here was a young mother sitting next to me, aching to work with children yet bound by responsibilities and circumstances that easily overwhelm the strongest individuals.

“So,” she said, turning the conversation away from herself. “I hear you wrote a children’s book? That’s great!”

“Oh,” I said, looking down, “yes, but it’s not published yet.” I’d been down on myself after several rejections and the thought of yet another round of revisions, only to stop myself and think: I’m lucky to be pursuing my passion. I looked at my new friend and wanted nothing more than for her to start pursuing her own passions, too.

Just then I received a text. It was another friend, asking which one of us should pick up our daughters from the library in 15 minutes. She works at Benevolent.net in Evanston. And then I had a thought.

I turned to the young woman. “First thing I think we should do,” I said, “is get you back in school, and one way to do that is to pay off the $700 balance. I want you to check out this website,” I said, writing down www.benevolent.net.” You have a one-time financial need that’s blocking you from moving forward. That’s where Benevolent helps. If you’re comfortable explaining your situation to them, they’ll help you share your need with donors who can contribute to helping you. It’s worth a shot.” 

She nodded.

“And, I think we should get together in a week or so after I’ve had a chance to talk to some friends in the education field.” We set up a time and a date next week.

I wrote down my cell phone number. “I want you to call me, anytime. Consider me an additional mentor if you need one.” She nodded again. “And,” I said, “I know you’re going to keep moving forward.”

As I turned to stand up, I noticed a former PTA co-president from Washington School, Kendra Morrill, sitting with her two sons. Kendra’s on the Board of Directors at Youth Job Center. I turned back to my new friend. “Can I quickly introduce you to someone? She’s on the Board of YJC.”

As the women shook hands, we talked about the WILL program. I asked when the mentors would be announced.  And then, I noticed the time.

“I’m so sorry, but I have to pick kids up at the library,” I said. I gave each woman a quick hug and hurried out to my car.

Later that night, I received a text from Kendra. She’d introduced the young woman to a Starbucks manager who participates in Youth Job Center programs. When the manager heard where the woman worked and what her position was, he asked her to interview for a shift position with more guaranteed hours than she’s getting from her current employer. I cut up the carrot cake muffin and told my kids the whole story.

A few days later, my new friend sent me an email letting me know about the “whirlwind” exchange with the Starbucks manager, and that she’d been offered not just that job but also another position she’d applied for elsewhere.

I don’t think I’ve done enough to help connect her with the right people, but I know it’s a start and that it’s a combined effort. I'm not sure what other avenues to suggest, but I hope readers will share their recommendations. I don’t remember the last time I’ve met someone so willing to accept the help of strangers, but I know the world would be a better place if we try to eliminate our roadblocks together.

Procrustes' Foil September 04, 2013 at 07:44 AM
Christine, after reading this and many of your other blogs, anyone who called you a racist should be deeply ashamed of themselves.
Seymour Taylor September 04, 2013 at 08:26 AM
This whole thread has gotten really old and tiresome. This started about 4 weeks ago with some friendly ribbing at Christine, for what regular readers thought was a lazy column. It evolved into one of the deepest discussions of community relations that I have seen in recent memory. There were many excellent contributions, Helens Daughter comes to mind. The everyday contributors had their say time and time again. I weighed in several times. But as the season has started to turn, we should also.No one in their right mind should think that Christine is racist because of her opinion of Dr Murphys Dress. There is still much to be learned about our attitudes towards each other and this was a good start. Take the lessons and run with them. Go Bears.
YELLOW September 05, 2013 at 12:12 AM
Good story and I hope much success for this young mother. This is a difficult time for the employed. As education costs are astronomical and jobs are not wanting to pay well. It's great that you were able to help her get that push start. Christine is a genuine, kind and caring person. That's obvious!

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