Today I left the keys on the counter and locked the door as I left Carpenter Place for the last time as a housemom.
A year and a half ago I convinced my husband that we should look into this job posting. It was for a houseparent couple to oversee an independent living program for young women aged 18-24. I appealed to his practical side. We could rent our house out. We’d save so much money. Our living expenses would be covered. We could do it for a year and pay down debt.
I really didn’t expect him to be open to it but I had learned about the program and then the job through my work with ICT S.O.S. and it just felt like something I wanted to be a part of. To my surprise he agreed to go with me to talk with Cory Long, the CEO, and learn more about what would be involved.
We spent the evening with Cory and his wife talking about this new program the home had recently started in a small apartment building. They had 3 young women at the time. Some had been homeless, others had struggled with family issues or aged out of the foster care system. They had no safety net. We talked about the rules and expectations of the girls, the goals for the program’s growth and what the day-to-day duties included. We saw the living arrangement. Yikes. 2 tiny adjacent 1-bedroom apartments would serve as the houseparent quarters. That was the last weekend in October. We stayed the next weekend on campus to get a feel for it and do a “trial run” of sorts. By Thanksgiving we had rented our house out, had a major decluttering attack and packed up the rest to move in.
The first few weeks were an adjustment. I was constantly doing a mental check in my head of where each girl was, what they had going on for the day and if they were staying out of trouble. We had some bumps in the road and some girls just weren’t ready yet to make the changes they needed to. We started to learn that the key to success was in accepting girls that were ready to take a new path. I don’t really know how to put my finger on it but there was some sort of “X-factor” that certain applicants had. The girl who was ready to grab a hold of the opportunity and fight for her future was the girl we could truly help. We needed to be a springboard. We needed to be a safe place to launch from while still providing a safety net.
Over the next several months we added girls and were soon at full capacity in our 6 apartments. We started to breathe a little and feel more comfortable in our role. The pace was hectic and plans changed at a moment’s notice but the girls were starting to ease into their roles as well. We were starting to become a family.
About this same time we gained a new co-worker and housemom, Claire. I could write a whole post on what a blessing she was and continues to be. Both to me as a friend and coworker and to the girls. We found a really cool balance between our personalities and ages. My ADHD tendencies were often softened by Claire’s quiet, graceful way of dealing with things. Claire is closer in age to the girls and she almost became a sort of wise big sister. I filled more of the mom role. Some things the girls would come to me for and others they confided in Claire. It’s a really interesting dynamic when you live in the same building you work in and share it with your coworkers. It could be really good or it could be really awkward! I’m so, so thankful that it was never anything but good. Claire and I shared the daily duties of driving girls to work and school, moving furniture and setting up apartments as girls moved in, and more than a few late nights dealing with some (mostly minor) crises.
Last summer ICT S.O.S. won a grant that was donated to Carpenter Place to remodel 2 apartments into a true houseparent quarters. In the fall we were able to purchase a security system with the proceeds from the Race for Freedom 5K. Over the course of several months volunteers helped with the remodel and several other updates to the building and grounds. As a result of the remodel 2 more apartments were opened up allowing up to 8 girls. The program continued to be full with a waiting list of applicants. June 1st the 9th apartment will open and a new young lady will move in. As fast as apartments become available, they are filled. The need is so great for safe housing and the opportunity that it provides.
Over the last year and a half I have seen four young women finish high school. I have seen girls learn to drive, buy their first cars and even learn how to use the gas pump. I have laughed until I cried and cried until I thought I had run out of tears. And then cried some more. I have sat in advisors’ offices as girls picked out and enrolled for their first college classes. I have taken senior portraits and sat in the salon while hair and nails were primped for prom. I have sat on bedroom floors, stairways and in hallways and talked for hours about past hurts, future plans, fears, hopes and dreams. And boys. I have learned how to cut sewn-in weave out of hair. I have cleaned up toilet overflows and sat in hospital ERs. I have seen families repaired, confidence gained and smiles return. I have had family dinners that included 13 people representing every shade of skin color on the spectrum. I have had my crockpot chicken recipe mocked mercilessly and told that my cooking was, “fire!” (That’s a good thing.) I have seen grown women sit on the floor and let my 5 year old give them a makeover.
People often ask me how my own kids adjusted to our unique living situation. I won’t lie, it was a big sacrifice at times. My kids had to miss out on activities or rearrange their schedules more than once. They shared a tiny bedroom. My oldest continued school in Andover which meant a 30 minute gap between our home and all of her school activities, friends and her dad’s house. But they also gained so much. The relationships they built, the life lessons they learned and the experiences we got to have as a family were priceless. There is definitely something to be said for gaining 8 new big sisters. Inside jokes, family vacations, birthday and holiday celebrations all got bigger. Many times basketball games, YMCA soccer or school awards ceremonies meant showing up with their own entourage and cheering section.
I believe that our family is stronger because of our time at Carpenter Place. In sharing our lives with the girls we got to see our own faith grow. We learned to be more patient with people because we never know what they might be struggling with. I believe we learned to see the people around us more. We made some amazing friends and built relationships that I believe will continue long into the future. We learned better how to put others’ needs before our own. Sometimes even when it’s really hard. And we learned that even in the darkest stories, there is light.
As I type this post there are 8 amazing young women in the Independent Living program. Several others have graduated and moved on to their next phase of life. They come from a diverse set of circumstances. Some of them have past histories that read like a Shakespearean tragedy. The things they have struggled with and had to overcome at such a young age would crush many of us. But that is not what I think about when I think of them. What I see are strong young women with their eyes clear and their hearts set on the future. They are working, taking college classes, and giving back to their community through volunteerism. They are talented artists, musicians and writers. They have voices that demand to be heard. They are exploring their faith and finding their paths. They are compassionate, beautiful, smart and funny. They are a force to be reckoned with.
We thought we were taking a job. What we got was family. Our employment has come to an end as we take the next steps on our journey and move on to other business ventures and new opportunities to serve our community through ICT S.O.S. but our family ties will remain. I can’t wait to see our girls walk across a college graduation stage, dance at their weddings and have families of their own someday. (Not soon, I’m too young to be Grandma Jen!)
Ladies, thank you for letting our family be a part of your story. This is a new chapter but not the end. We love you so very much and we are so, SO proud of each and every one of you.