June 27th • Irvington, NY
Housed in an old hospital that specialized in children, Abbott House sits on a hill up the road from Madam C. J. Walker’s old estate and less than 20 miles from midtown Manhattan. Abbott House is a non-profit supporting children and families with complex needs. Historically opened as a place to support and house children in the foster system, Abbott House evolved to also provide a continuum of services for those foster children with developmental disabilities as they grew past their foster years and yet still need services and community. Since the migrant crisis, Abbott House has welcomed over 900 children, in conditions far different than the ones currently making headlines. Here children have beds, clothes, activities, medical care, school, emotional support and the dedication of staff working to support them as they await being reunited with their families. The heart of Abbott House’s work is about helping human beings recover from trauma or preventing it from happening in the first place.
We met Yvonne Brown at a writing retreat we were hosting a few years ago led by Garrard Conley. She was working on her novel, based on her life, as “an homage” to her late mother. Since then, she’s published her book Crying Girl, and is looking at the next chapter about her experience of becoming a foster child with an African American mother-figure and a ward of the state of Maryland until the age of 21.
We arrived and were greeted by Lauren Candela-Katz, Chief Development Officer, who gave us a tour and filled us in on the history and evolution of the Abbott House. When she offered space in the brightly colored and cheery art room for Yvonne to work, Yvonne asked if she could spend her time in the main house, “a real place.” Where she could feel the walls. This was personal to Yvonne and she was there to be with all of it. Lauren got it. Here are some of Yvonne’s reflections and pictures.
"Foster Parents… Answering the Call" the wall plaque reads. The building----which once was a hospital in 1938 for typhoid fever and also found the cure is where I sit at the head of the board room of the largest board room table I've ever seen comprised of a total of 8 wooden folding event tables making one large table surrounded by twenty black leather high-back chairs. The grand set up of the table and chair arrangement gives the feel that serious meetings take place here. Supporting this thought are the plaques on the wall which serve as a back drop of the meeting room as if to call its members to remember or serve as reminders of their overall purpose when burnout strikes. Two floors above me was a make-shift child morgue and Martin Luther King once visited to give a speech about the significance of helping. Now the building beckons the attention of volunteers to cut the ivy sprawling through the concrete siding, painting the basket ball court, digging holes for a new playground and the children, the foster children----the children from the border, that I've heard so much about…
Sometimes we think we know something because we read about it, we see a film, hear a story. It’s different to step into a place. Put your hands to it. Feel it from the inside out.
The migrant crisis is not something that is just a momentary newsflash, nor is it just on the border. As we have seen in recent weeks, the crisis is growing and the conditions in which kids are being detained and treated is often unconscionable, often worse than prison conditions. Supported by federal funds, many foster homes that have taken in migrant children are in the tricky position of caring for what the government considers “detainees,” becoming responsible for children whose parents sent them here out of desperation and hope they would be safe and have a better life, but without being able to change the policies that bring them these kids.
Abbott House is just one of the facilities housing unaccompanied migrant children in NY state. But a home that has a history of supporting children who need support is very different than a prison. True to their long history, while the circumstances that bring them the kids are often awful, Abbott House is doing what it can to create the best environment. No one wants to leave their home unless they have to.
Abbott House is known for being a place for children who have no other place to go. For most of the last 50 years, that meant homeless, neglected, or traumatized boys from often lower income communities. These are the kids that much of society was already writing off, setting up to be locked up and out from the rest of their communities. It’s easy to critique something once it exists. That’s why most people don’t even try. No place is perfect but Abbott House is doing some of the most important work out there. Giving a place, a real place, that someone can call home. To children especially. Yvonne knows what that means.