“Sarah, your 10am appointment is here.” Downstairs in the waiting room I met Sandra*, a new client to Taller de José, and likewise one of my first intakes as a new compañera. Bundled in her arms (with tiny feet covered by too-big pink socks peeking out of the blanket) was her sleeping baby, Daniela, who at the time was just over a week old.
Sandra came to us with concurrent presenting issues, as is common with many of Taller de José’s clients. While as a first-time mother she should be in what is the happiest and most exciting moment of her life, instead she is met with undue stresses and burdens – entering parenthood as a single mother with financial struggles and health concerns – along with experiencing the exhaustion and all that is typical of caring for a newborn. After a complicated pregnancy during which she was unable to work, Sandra was left a few months behind in her rent. She explained the situation to me with tears in her eyes and simply said, “It’s hard.”
At this point during our appointment together we went into problem-solving mode, calling the City of Chicago 311 line, Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army – all resources which Taller de José often relies upon. After 2 hours of automated “thank you for your patience” messages, call transferring, and waiting to actually speak with a human, we were repeatedly met with some variation of the same response:
“No, there are no funds at this time.”
“We only give help with a proof of income.”
“We’re sorry, but you do not qualify for assistance.”
With each new dead end, I could sense Sandra’s growing frustration and desperation; it was disheartening for me as well to give her the false hope of a list of resources, ultimately none of which were willing or able to provide aid. Some attempted to be “helpful” by referring us to local shelters and soup kitchens, but this only served to further overwhelm Sandra by confronting her with a future that she cannot imagine. I could not help but think to myself, “Who could possibly be more vulnerable or in more need of assistance than a single mother with no income and a new baby?” While I understand that these services and organizations want to ensure that the emergency funds they provide are sustainable, and that the individual will not just be in the same place the following month, Sandra’s situation – much of which has been unexpected and out of her control – is the definition of an emergency. She will soon be returning to work, once she can enroll her daughter in day-care, and at that point will no longer require assistance.
During our most recent appointment, after proudly updating me that Daniela had gained half a pound since we had last seen each other, we continued to explore options and filled out an application for rental assistance. This time I watched as she placed a phone call herself – I was so proud to hear her firmly but respectfully through the help of a phone interpreter explain to the woman on the other end “I hear what you are saying, but that is not what the representative told me last time. Maybe you can check again.” It was a special moment to see Sandra so empowered and act as her own advocate, having the confidence and tenacity to push back when she wasn’t getting the answer she wanted. After working together, she now knows where to call and what questions to ask.
That same day I accompanied Sandra to the Daley Center in order to obtain Daniela’s birth certificate – this also happened to be her first time to downtown Chicago. As we walked back to the L station, Sandra looked up in awe at the impressive skyscrapers surrounding us and thanked me for helping her overcome her fear of public transportation. She spoke of bringing Daniela to the city when she gets older – of visiting the museums and all that Chicago has to offer. During that moment, for the first time I heard her mention things that she should be focusing on as a new mother. Instead of only being overwhelmed with the stresses of her current situation, she was finally dreaming of the beautiful memories that she will one day create with her daughter.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest,” states Matthew 11:28. My hope is that through the ministry of Taller de José Sandra can breathe and find some sense of comfort and rest in our perseverance while searching for resources and assistance. In the spirit of accompaniment, I hope she feels emotionally supported and thus bolstered; while her burdens are many, she is not alone.
*Names and details have been altered in order to preserve client’s privacy