“We Believe in Them”
Kellie Phelan spent years strung out on heroin and crack. “I just went crazy,” said Kellie, whose parents were drug addicts—her mother died when Kellie was 7. Soon her own daughter, Brittanie, cried herself to sleep at night while Kellie got high. “All I did was smoke crack, unless I was sleeping or in jail,” said Kellie, 35. She gave up custody of Brittanie, who never spoke to her mother again.
Kellie was seven months pregnant with her second child and “still getting high and running the streets” when she was arrested in 2007. After Savannah's birth, they lived together in Rikers Island jail. But this time when Kellie was released without a dollar to her name, a room with a bed, crib and welcome basket greeted her at Hour Children in Queens, N.Y. The organization gives formerly incarcerated women a fresh start.
Turning Her Life Around
“If you give them a supportive home and services, they can turn their lives around,” said Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, Executive Director.
Kellie, who had dropped out of high school pregnant at age 16, did just that. She got her GED, computer training, and soon, a job she loves. While she works, Savannah, now 2, plays in Hour Children's day care center, decorated with Curious George and Clifford murals and taught by formerly incarcerated moms. Kellie picks up Savannah at 5 p.m. and they walk home to their 2-bedroom apartment.
“These are all things I never thought were possible,” Kellie said.
Hour Children runs a wide range of programs that help moms leaving prison become self-sufficient. It has five residences for 45 families, a food pantry, thrift shop, job training, counseling, a licensed day care center, afterschool for older kids, even a beauty salon. Named for the time restrictions imposed on kids visiting their mothers behind bars, Hour Children also runs programs for women and children inside four New York correctional facilities. It has helped more than 7,000 families reunify and stabilize and has a 4 percent recidivism rate, compared to 30 percent statewide. “We believe in them,” Sister Tesa said.
The Meatloaf Queen
Kellie's road to stability was gradual. She and Savannah first lived in Hour Children's group home with nine families and three nuns. Everyone ate together at 6:30 sharp, had chores and 8:30 p.m. curfews. “I never cooked in my life,” Kellie said. “Now, I'm the meatloaf queen.” Eventually Kellie and Savannah moved into a less-structured group home and finally, into their own two-bedroom apartment. Savannah's art work decorates her pale green room with matching crib set and rocking chair. “I love it,” Kellie said.
Kellie also loves her job for the first time in her life. She pairs volunteers with children who aren't living with their incarcerated parents for Hour Children's mentoring program. “I never had a job that served a purpose,” Kellie said.
Reuniting with Brittanie
But Kellie's biggest goal was to reunite with Brittanie, who she hadn't seen in five years. Since Brittanie had moved in with her aunt at age 12, the girl had refused to take her mother's phone calls. Just days after Kellie's arrival at Hour Children, Brittanie showed up. “She was so beautiful,” Kellie said tearfully. They underwent therapy and Brittanie began visiting her mother and baby sister on weekends, before moving in for the summer and volunteering at Hour Children's job training program. Now 18, Brittanie graduated high school with a 93 percent average and will attend St. Johns University on Staten Island. She plans to be a teacher. Though they still face challenges, Kellie regained custody of Brittanie in May 2009, closing the saddest chapter of their lives.
“Hour Children gave me my mother back,” Brittanie said.
Click here to visit the Hour Children Web site.