Home is Where the Heart is: Students Share Holiday with Shelter Mothers

Photo credit to Derek Norman

On Mother’s Day this past Sunday, joyful women gleamed as their smiling children excitedly piled cake and brownies onto their plates, each woman holding a hand-crafted card and care package. The holiday-moment was near perfect despite a painful circumstance; having to celebrate in a homeless shelter.

Help 1 is a non-profit human services organization that helps house homeless families and aims to transition them to permanent housing. Located in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the organization hosted members of the Alpha Sigma Zeta sorority, who provided Mother’s Day cards and a dessert brunch to the families staying there.

“This is us going back to the roots of what a sorority is supposed to be about,” said Akelia Campbell, a business major and member of the sorority. “We want to put ourselves out there and show people that no matter who you are and where you’re from, or the situation you’re in, there will always be people out there that want to help.”

Alpha Sigma Zeta is a multicultural sorority that champions itself on empowering women. In the future, they are planning to launch a program that will be known as FEM, or Female Empowerment through Mentorship, which will conduct workshops and address different women’s issues each month.

Inside the dining hall of the shelter, steel-framed cribs lined the back wall, an impromptu organizing strategy that added a fitting fixture to the atmosphere. One member of the sorority, Shatine Houston, stood helping serve the sweets, six months pregnant and feeling the weight of her first Mother’s Day.

“I like to see these kids coming out and running around, it’s so nice,” said Houston, a 2014 alumna and head of philanthropy for the Alpha Sigma Zeta. “Life is hard and if you could think about other people, definitely help them. You only get one life, so make a difference for someone when you can.”

Photo credit to Derek Norman

At a workshop few days previous, a handful of sorority girls and members of the CUNY EDGE program crafted about 100 unique cards and equipped them with care packages containing hygiene products. Some students of the CUNY EDGE program felt obligated, as all have felt the adversity of struggling financially.

The CUNY EDGE program is a partnership between CUNY and the New York City Human Resources Administration that provides undergraduate students on public assistance supplemental resources and support needs to ensure their graduation. Partnered with other campus offices, like BC Bound, the health clinic, food pantry and student affairs, the students have access to needed resources.

At Brooklyn College alone, over 1,700 students have applied for public assistance. Many of whom also deal with a wide-range of issues like homelessness, domestic violence, veteran affairs and immigration status.

“We have a lot of students at Brooklyn College that are living in shelters themselves, and many don’t know this,” said Corrine Cashin, Assistant Director of the CUNY EDGE program at Brooklyn College and who volunteered to take part in the brunch. “More than half of my students that helped make these cards are in shelters and they specifically told me to let the people I meet here today know that they could be looking toward college. No matter how little my students have, they always look to share. And that is something to celebrate.”

The CUNY EDGE program itself, faces issues in trying to provide services to students who need them. The program is only budgeted for 90 students, but serves 171. Others are ineligible unless they are on cash assistance, so relying on food stamps alone does not qualify a student. Some students may make just slightly over the threshold and disqualify their eligibility.

As for students of the CUNY EDGE, helping provide the women and children of the Brownsville shelter with a decent Mother’s Day was encouraging, especially as the compassion came through connection. The students, who did not attend the brunch, wished for their advisor to relay the message that a college education is not out of the question, regardless of financial status.

Photo credit to Derek Norman

“Our students have had their power turned off and they are on the Dean’s List with 3.8 GPA’s,” said Cashin. “So add everything that it takes to be a college student and add to that: children, and housing insecurity, and medical issues. And you just don’t know who’s in that situation. Don’t assume that the person sitting next to you has so much, because a lot of people take a lot of time and effort to be where they’re at and they should never be stigmatized.”

The program also assists those after graduation. It weans the student off the assistance in hopes that they are financially secure enough to build themselves as independent. In one case, a girl was cut short of her assistance and had to take her issue to a Fair Hearings court. But in most cases, the students are successful. Cashin will see several dozen of her students graduate this semester.

The celebration continued as people came and went consistently throughout the early afternoon, some still in pajamas as to assume their day did not hold much, and some dressed as if they were late to a brunch of their own. All shared the brandishing of a smile on the seasonal spring day.

“I just wanted to give back to my community, and that fact that I’m doing this and that I’m here,” said Houston, as her eyes welled with tears recalling her own bout with homelessness. “I’ve lived through this and I want them to know that they’ll be fine. They’re living for their kids at this point. And that alone, living for that… they should be fine.”

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