April 23, 2009
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“Grandma was always baking cookies,” Stephanie remembers, “and when I was sick, she’d mix honey with vinegar for me to drink.” The remedy may not have tasted good, but it worked.
Stephanie’s grandmother, an immigrant from Austria, shared an apartment with her and her mother in Burlington’s Old North End. The older woman provided warmth and stability for a little girl whose mother found herself incapable of adequately parenting her only child. Stephanie’s grandmother offered homemade meals — including her granddaughter’s favorite dumpling soup — and a loving heart. Stephanie’s father remained absent, kind of like a character in a Tennessee Williams’ play. She did meet him — when she was 9.
Stephanie attended H.O. Wheeler School, where she liked art, especially painting and drawing. By age 7, she was taken from her mother and placed in the first of several foster homes.
“I left in the middle of second grade. I was sad. I was too young to understand what was going on,” Stephanie says. “My Grandma tried to get custody of me, but she got sick. She broke her hip and then had to have a blood transfusion. The blood was tainted with Hepatitis C.”
Stephanie lost the one adult who’d been a stable, supportive force in her young life.
“I moved to a foster home in Underhill. I took my kitten so I’d have something familiar,” she recalls. “The family had horses and I started riding. I loved the horses.”
Stephanie’s apartment near Taft Corners, which she shares with her 11-month-old son, is neat and tidy — with a sprinkling of toys. The walls are decorated with images of horses, pulled from the pages of a colorful calendar. Numerous ribbons, won in horse shows, are suspended above her bedroom window. At 22, she’s justifiably proud of furnishings purchased with her own earnings.
Stephanie moved back in with her mother at age 12. The state stepped in within a year, placing her in a new foster home. Stephanie is respectful, careful not to elaborate on why she could not live and thrive under her mother’s care. Stephanie tried living with her mother one more time when she turned 18. She stayed for two months before calling Spectrum Youth and Family Services to request assistance.
“I went to Spectrum. I lived in their shelter before moving into the SRO (Single Room Occupancy) Program. I lived there for two years. They really helped me,” Stephanie reflects. “They helped me earn my GED and get a job.”
While residing at Spectrum, Stephanie worked and saved money for an eventual apartment of her own. She was a cleaner at Fletcher Allen Health Care and worked at Burger King. She settled into a full-time job, delivering auto parts in the used car she bought herself. Evenings, she moonlighted at a farm, cleaning stalls and feeding horses.
“Spectrum was helpful when I had no place to go. Everyone was nice there. I could go to the drop-in center to eat meals and play games,” Stephanie remembers.
Spectrum connects homeless, runaway and at-risk youth with food, housing, education, employment and medical resources.
Stephanie moved to Williston a couple of summers ago when an affordable apartment became available. She commuted to Burlington for work. She’s the primary caregiver of her son, although his father is involved. Returning to the workforce and finding an apartment in the country, closer to nature, is an eventual goal.
In the meantime, Stephanie cares for her son, taking him for walks and marveling at how quickly he is growing. She’s just about ready to bring him to the library to participate in story times and play activities. Motherhood is wonderful and yet, it can be a little isolating. Her car needs new wheel bearings — a repair that costs $160. She walks most places with her son in his stroller.
After routinely working 50-hour weeks, Stephanie finds herself on public assistance. She does not view this as a long-term arrangement. Living on limited means requires occasional trips to a food shelf.
“I used to sometimes go to the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf in Burlington,” Stephanie says. “Here (at the Williston Community Food Shelf), they are really nice and very helpful. You’re only allowed to visit once a month, but they let me go twice once when I really needed food.”
Stephanie appreciates that clients at Williston’s food shelf are able to choose their items. She opts for macaroni and cheese, canned fruit and applesauce — because her son loves applesauce.
“They usually have muffins from Starbucks on Saturdays. They even had candy for Easter,” Stephanie says with a smile.
The Williston Community Food Shelf could not exist without the generosity of local businesses and individuals. On May 1-7, an online auction — featuring donated artwork from local artists — will be held to raise money for this very important resource. Please go to www.wcfs.cmarket.com to view and bid on artwork. If preferred, cash donations can be made directly from the home page. For further information, please contact Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many of us need a helping hand at one time or another. I hope this piece affords a view of Williston through the eyes of a young mother trying to do right by her child in a way her mother was unable to do for her. If you meet Stephanie at the library or while she’s out with her son on one of their walks, offer a welcoming smile. Friendship nurtures just as much as food.
Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at email@example.com or LittleDetailsCol@yahoo.com.