Thursday, March 11, 2010

Abeona House

4 years ago, in the spring following Hurricane Katrina, I found myself in a state of frustration, desperation, something closing in on panic. My 6-month-old baby was entering her third month at a day care that was not meeting my expectations; granted, they were high expectations, but this was my child, after all. There was nothing particularly wrong with the place: it was clean, the staff was friendly enough, there were no televisions in the play rooms or creepy boyfriends hanging out in the break room. And Sydney seemed happy enough, although I was starting to suspect that this contentment was more a reflection of her innate disposition, not of anything special the organization was providing. Then, one day, I walked in and found my my child, my precious baby, struggling to wrap her mouth around the nipple of a bottle that had been propped against the edge of her infant seat. That sight, of her struggling for sustenance, haunts me still. I marched out of there with my child and all of her belongings and knew that we would not be going back. I didn't have a back-up plan but could not, I would not, tolerate the idea of not-quite-good-enough child care.

Luckily, that very afternoon I received a call from a friend who knew of a nanny who was looking for another child to join her group. This nanny happened to be a former member of the staff of the Gris Gris House, the childcare center I had chosen for Sydney, before Katrina came, wiped out all their resources, and forced them to close. Some parents from the Gris Gris House had started a nanny-share situation with this woman, who was awesome, and I signed up right away, grateful and relieved and feeling very, very lucky.

I felt even more grateful and relieved and lucky and excited when I learned that this group of parents had banded together to form a new childcare center; it was supposed to open in a couple of months and I knew I had to be in that number. I took my registration form and my deposit and hand-delivered it to the appointed person's doorstep, then waited anxiously to hear if we had been granted a spot.

I don't remember when we heard, but eventually we did, that we were on the list of families to open the center. We went to the open house, met the other families and future teachers, built a ramp, painted, cleaned, sorted through donations--most of what we started with, from cribs and toys to tables and chairs, was second-hand--and just generally got things ready. Meanwhile, I worked on finishing my master's degree and internship and in between things pushed my chubby little baby girl up and down streets littered with debris, through wrecked neighborhoods, past the remains of so many people's lives, so many people who would never come back, and tried hard to imagine the day when things would stop feeling so surreal, so transitional, so impossible, so wrecked. And when I would push Sydney through the streets in her stroller everyone always seemed appreciative, approving, genuinely glad to see such a concrete affirmation of the future of the city; everyone else--everyone I knew who did not live here--made it clear, explicitly or otherwise, that maybe I was just a little crazy, darewesayeven negligent, for introducing an infant into such a lonely, toxic, fragile, wrecked environment.

But then. Then, in September, Abeona House finally opened. The name, when I stop to think about it, still moves me to tears. In Roman mythology, Abeona is the goddess of Outward Journeys--more specifically, the goddess responsible for guiding and guarding children as they take their first steps away from home. I mean, seriously. From the very beginning, I knew we were a part of something very special--I knew we had found that sacred third place, that home away from home, that so-much-more-than-a-day-care scenario.

Maybe you're wondering what's so special about Abeona House. A lot of it has to do with Emmy, our Director, who periodically sends me midday emails, just to let me know that Sydney was gentle and thoughtful with a friend on the playground, or that Evan is having a great, smiley, happy day. For no particular reason--just because. And there's Gwen, the Assisant Director and fearless head of the one-year-olds' classroom, who has this uncanny ability to get 8 toddlers to sit in a circle and sing songs for extended periods of time, who had the entire school chanting "Sydney ROUX!" every afternoon when I would pick her up, who is simultaneously playful, nurturing, and respectful of children--which is indeed a rare combination of skills. There's Alli, the 2s teacher, who engages her young charges in truly impressive feats of creativity, who is gentle and fun and funky and sees every child as a unique, crazy, creative little force of nature. There's the Mardi Gras parade where we march up and down Oak Street with our signature throw--the Golden NuNu. There's Aliza and Nicole, the preschool teachers, who are so patient, so engaged with our children, who seem genuinely happy to be doing what they're doing and who make a concerted effort to communicate my childrens' successes, to problems-solve around their challenges. There's the quarterly work days, where parents show up on Saturday morning and fix things up. There's the teacher luncheons, which happen about twice a year, when parents report for duty in the middle of the workday so that the teachers can go out to lunch with each other. There's the Kids Tent at the annual Oak Street PoBoy Fest, which we host; there's summertime walks to the snoball stand, Friday morning romps on the levee, Yoga Thursdays, visits to a sibling's classroom when one is feeling sad (yes--if Syd is having a hard time, she goes to visit with Evan, and vice versa--amazing), visits by brass and Zydeco and Klezmer bands, Family Nights at a parent-owned restaurant. I could go on and on and on; we have 4 years' worth of experience, and what a rich experience it has been.

When I had Sydney, I knew very few people my age with children; I was the first of my group of friends to take that journey, and so it was unchartered territory, a great and terrifying unknown. So there was no way I could anticipate or understand the great and terrifying dilemma around early childhood education--if I had understood what a tremendous problem it is I might have had second thoughts about having children. But now, knowing what I know, having what we have, I am fully aware, every single day, of how incredibly lucky we are, what a gift it is to have this place, this third place, this community that is helping me to raise my children. In two months Sydney will be leaving for summer camp and then kindergarten; every step of this newest journey has just reinforced for me the knowledge that damn, my baby girl has been shown some serious love, such genuine and thoughtful attention, that I know can never be replicated. My children are thriving, I believe, in large part because of what they have at Abeona House.

But it doesn't come without a price. It's not a painful price, but it takes work. There's the tuition, of course, but on top of that there are the work days, the board membership (I've been serving for 2 1/2 years, now as Vice President), the community efforts, the teacher appreciation initiatives, the fundraising. As a small non-profit, so much of our livelihood as an organization depends upon our fundraising efforts, like the upcoming Crescent City Classic fundraiser, affectionately known as the Reggio Run. Last year I raised almost $700 and ran the 10k in a prom dress; this year I hope to raise even more and run in something a tad more comfortable. If you've read this far, it must mean you're interested; won't you please consider sponsoring my run? Say yes--you know you want to. I'm talking about 5 or 10 or maybe even 25 bucks, which you can donate through the PayPal button on our website, or mail to the center in a check. These funds will help keep our school open, help us keep offering health insurance and paid days off to our teachers.

And my kids will be so grateful.

1 comment:

rs said...

First - you and I share motherhood. I have two children - a 3 1/2 yr old boy and a 16 month girl - which is what led me to your wonderfully written blog.

But what kept me reading your review of the Aboena House was your opinion as not only a mother, but that as a Volunteer.

I had my daughter enrolled in another school but this led to that and my search began frantically last night when it sunk in that the current won't suffice and I must find something new.

I called a few places that I felt would offer the quality of childcare that I demand (yes, I too, have strong opinions of the care of my young ones) and if it wasn't a "no" it was a voice mail. I called Aboena House quite honestly expecting a "no" and to my shock (and relief!), was told there was a good chance there will be an opening beginning December 1st (Thursday - yay!!).

I have such mixed feelings about working FT and leaving the care of my daughter to that of someone else, but your review calms those concerns of mine and I just wanted to write and tell you how thankful I am for coming across it.

I do hope that I find myself driving my daughter to the new location Thursday and then so, meeting you in the near future.

I have found that you can never have too many "mommy friends" in New Orleans.