The Holy Grail of cultural institutions is impact. Are we providing our visitors with experiences sufficiently transformative to offer them positive, lasting change? I got my answer at a recent press conference to celebrate our 16th annual publication of poetry and stories by homeless mothers, Hope Came Here.
Observing the composed, articulate women on either side of New York City's First Lady Chirlane McCray who spoke at the event, one would never guess that Tawana Alston and Mia Edmondson were once teen moms unprepared for parenthood, unconvinced of the value of education, and unmoored from their futures. In 1994, when they arrived at the Children's Museum of Manhattan with their babies in tow, they were resistant to new ideas and unfamiliar with museums. They came to participate in a new, early childhood art and literacy program designed to help teen moms improve their lives by providing them with the skills, knowledge and resources to create better lives for themselves and their children.
Since then, our program participants have shifted. Mia and Tawana, although they were teen moms, came from loving, supportive homes. We expanded the program, recognizing some of the city's most vulnerable mothers and children are those in the Shelter system. So, for the past 16 years, while the program structure remains the same, we have focused on homeless mothers and children.
The sessions meet weekly from June through October. Each begins with unstructured time when the program staff and mothers do an art project and chat while the children, most under the age of three, play with the museum's early childhood education staff in our specially designed PlayWorks classroom. After a shared lunch, the women have their own time, apart from their children, to explore, under the guidance of a social worker, their feelings about parenting, being homeless, and living in NYC. They are able to get and share advice about challenges they are facing.
Afterward, they are provided a prompt for writing. Putting pen to paper is a much different process from speaking. Our writing teacher and board member Judith Hannan explains it this way, "When you write, you stand next to yourself. This remove allows you to go deeper into your feelings. The women access aspects of themselves through writing in ways that can be comforting rather than overwhelming."
Finally, the women read their words aloud. In 15 minutes, they have created stories that not only make their lives a little more understandable to them but to the others as well.
Reflecting on the early days, Mia admitted, "At first I wasn't sure about joining the program because I was so immature and didn't trust easily. However, after the first meeting and writing session, I realized the staff at the Children's Museum were people who genuinely cared, and supported us without judgment. I felt safe at the museum. It became a place where I could kind of be a kid again while still being a mom."
Today, Mia is the happily married mother of two and has worked with Health Care Union 1199SEIU for over twelve years.
Tawana, now working at a financial services firm and also a mother of two, agreed: "Before attending this program I was an emotional roller coaster. I was beyond confused. That changed after joining the program. I met other young mothers that I was able to share similar stories, laughs and tears with. We formed an unbreakable bond that is as strong today as it was 21 years ago."
Mia and Tawana had family support and yet as teen moms they still struggled. There is no question that their achievements in life are due to their own efforts however both women cite the program as a key to their success.
According to Mia, "The Children's Museum provided me with lessons about how important education is not only for us but for our children. I remember the staff reading to my daughter with much exaggeration and emotion. She loved it, so I continued to read to her every night mimicking them."
Chasity, Mia's twenty-one-year-old daughter, accompanied her to the event where Mia was understandably eager to share Chasity's college graduation picture.
At the Children's Museum, that's the picture we want for all parents and all children, especially those who are most in need. We work to make this happen every day in our building and around the city.
What is it we do that is so life-changing? It's a modest but powerful alchemy. With our partners from the New York City Administration for Children's Services, and the Departments of Health, Education, and Homeless Services we bring women together who, while they live under the same roof, are isolated from each other. We welcome them to a place that is friendly - not only to their children but to them - a place where they aren't judged. The interplay between the mommy-and-me time, the conversations, the writing and the reading aloud for the group helps build trust and confidence. We guide them, offering them tools to aid in self-expression, improve parenting skills and ensure their children are ready for pre-kindergarten.
But ultimately, the Children's Museum helps them to create and become part of a larger community and long-lasting support system. I need only to think about Tawana's closing comment to answer my opening question: "These ladies have become my sisters. We stay in touch with one another and we continually commend one another on our accomplishments. We started this journey together at the Children's Museum and when one succeeds we all succeed."