A mutual friend recommended that I speak with Sharon Davis (as a working mother; and architect with a remarkable heart and vision).
Sharon was generous with her time, and spoke passionately about her life-changing work in Africa, just before we finished I asked about her kids, a casual question about how she managed work and mother hood, it was then she mentioned how she had fostered a boy from the Bronx.
The conversation suddenly took an entirely new twist.
Here in her own words is that story, and what better day than Mother’s day to post it:
“We met J– through a project called the Fresh Air Fund. It is an organisation that arranges for families to take underprivileged kids out of the city for a break. It is eye-opening for both the kids and for the families that host them – some of these kids have never seen stars before or don’t know where milk comes from.
“J– was about the same age as my first two kids (9 and 7 at the time) when we met him. His legal guardian was his grandmother (his father was in prison, his mother had some serious issues and J– had no contact with either of them). His grandmother had both legs amputated, was mostly blind and had to have regular dialysis.
“For the first couple of summers of our relationship, J–came to stay with us for a month and we helped him to find interesting things to do. It was lovely: good to help him, great for my elder two to have company, fun for the family to have another (at that time we thought) temporary member.
“After a couple of years, having realised that he needed extra help at school, we found him a summer programme that worked on building those skills. J– did that for two holidays and, through it, found out that, despite all the challenges he was finding in education, he was quite a good writer. It was a wonderful discovery and gave him so much self-confidence which had been missing. The programme also helped him organise himself – an essential life skill, that many of us, who have been privileged to have a good education, take for granted.
“At home in the Bronx with his grandmother, he went to a Catholic school. I had visited it. It seemed nice. I had also been to his home many times and not noticed any danger. Then, one day – when he was in 8th grade – his grandmother called me and said a gang had knifed him as he walked home from school. He was not badly injured, but even so it was shocking. (He still has a scar.) And then I realised, with a sudden life-changing awareness, that a whole different world surrounded him all the time. A world I hadn’t seen; one that was dominated by gangs and one that he had to pass through every day of his life, when he wasn’t at school or at home. Both my husband and I felt immediately that we were in a position to help him – and that we should.”
Sharon says this quite easily, but I know that it is not an easy choice for her and her family to have made. It means so much investment – of love, of time, of patience… and the commitment can’t go away once you have started. I bring this up….
“Sure.” says Sharon with that lovely calm voice. “Staying with it was an important part. But you love and get loved in return. J– became a critical part of our family. My youngest daughter doesn’t remember a time without him. Our eldest two go out with him all the time – they share friends. J– became integral to ‘us’.”
It has been quite a journey. J– needed extra help with schoolwork. It took a while to find the right school. They researched many and signed him up to one in the city, but that didn’t’ work out. After a lot more soul searching and more research they decided together that boarding school would offer him opportunities that had previously been missing in his life. And also, at around this time, J– started coming home to them every holiday. (Sharon explains: “J-‘s grandmother didn’t pass away until he was 18 so we didn’t legally adopt him… but I think of him as my son and my children think of him as their brother….”)
At this point in the interview I have so many questions for Sharon. Did her own family immediately accept J– as one of her children? I ask. “No,” she replies. “It took a while for them to recognise him as a member of our family. But they did eventually.” She pauses, then adds, “Thankfully.”
And then the maternal wisdom begins to pour out: “You know,” she says, “there were certain conversations that my husband and I had with our older children as they became teenagers. Conversations that needed to happen, starting with alcohol and cigarettes and issues surrounding the opposite sex. We intuitively discussed these things with them when the right time came. In our relationship with J–, our closeness developed later. At first it was direct care but then, slowly, we began to realise that, even though he was a teenager, no one had had those conversations with him. And in fact, he was in more urgent need of that careful advice.” She explains patiently. “ A child coming from that environment only sees ‘success’ – men with a nice car, with good cred on the street – in drug dealers. They become their role models. These kids don’t see men succeeding in other professions. This realisation really changed me. It brought me up short and showed me how much we really are determined by our environment. And this is something which spilled over later in my work in Africa, working with women over there…. (more about this next week)
And so, on balance, is she glad that the family made this choice? “Yes,” she says firmly. There is no doubt. Then she explains, “There have been some very poignant moments which have made us glad that we made the decisions we did. The most important one being something that happened when J– was a teenager. His cousin F–, who lived north of the Bronx, had always been J-‘s best friend and they always hung out together. He came over to stay with us for the weekend several times when they were young. One day we had a call. F– was in jail for murder and now he is in a maximum security prison where he will remain until his late thirties. He was 15 years old when he was sentenced. I just know, as J– and F– were inseparable, that J– would most likely have got caught up in this too. I was really shocked by the powerful difference that a home environment can make on a young life.”
I am humbled by Sharon’s example. And with the maternal care that she has poured in to all of her children – including J–. And wish her, and every other mother out there, a peaceful and Happy Mother’s day.
(Our interviewlet about her work with women in Africa will follow next in this series of Extraordinary Lives.)
To hear more about Sharon’s son’s experience click here…