March 26, 2010

The warmth of God's arms: Youth director embraces shelter’s goal of changing heartbreak to hope for homeless children and parents

As the director of community and youth services at Holy Family Shelter in Indianapolis, Emily Able often brings a smile and caring touch to her efforts to help homeless children and their parents build a new life of hope. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

As the director of community and youth services at Holy Family Shelter in Indianapolis, Emily Able often brings a smile and caring touch to her efforts to help homeless children and their parents build a new life of hope. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

In his dreams, the boy never imagined celebrating his 10th birthday in a shelter for homeless families.

He also never dreamed how special that birthday would turn out to be.

As he woke that morning at Holy Family Shelter in Indianapolis, the boy just knew how much his life had changed in the past few weeks. He and his single mother had to leave their home, their neighborhood and the friends they had known. He sensed the helplessness that his mom felt. He saw the fear in her eyes, a fear that he felt, too.

He also feared that his birthday would pass unnoticed amid all the uncertainties in their lives.

The boy didn’t know an employee at the shelter—Emily Able—had seen the paperwork that showed the date of his birthday. He didn’t know that she took the time to get him a birthday cake and select presents for him from an extra supply of gifts that people had donated during the Christmas season.

“We always recognize a child’s birthday here,” says Able, the director of community and youth services at Holy Family Shelter. “When he saw the gifts and the cake, he was surprised. He said, ‘I never had a cake before.’ There were tears in his eyes.”

There are tears in her eyes as she finishes that story.

Making the connection

The stories from Holy Family Shelter tend to be emotional.

Sometimes those stories are touched by joy, including the celebration in December when the archdiocese’s new 30,000-square-foot shelter opened on the near west side in Indianapolis, providing a much larger haven of hope for homeless families, married couples, expectant mothers and single parents with children. (Related story: Volunteers needed to fill many roles at new Holy Family Shelter)

Too often, the stories from the shelter are touched with heartbreak, especially considering the impact of suddenly being homeless on children.

“Our kids, even the ones who want to act tough, are affected hugely by what happens to their parents,” Able says. “They lose a home, their friend next door and the neighborhood they’re used to seeing. They’re also going through the trauma of their family being stressed. Some parents cry. Some yell. Some stay in their rooms. There’s stress, confusion and even fear for our kids. They have fear for themselves, their parents, their little siblings. They’re carrying the brunt of a lot of things they shouldn’t be carrying.”

The 28-year-old Able works to lift that burden from their minds and their lives. One of the primary ways she does it is by providing stability in their schooling.

“There’s federal legislation called the McKinney Vento Act that says that every homeless child has the right to attend their school of origin,” notes Able, a 2000 graduate of Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. “School districts have the obligation to provide the transportation to their school.”

Able makes those transportation connections with the school districts. She also serves as an advocate for parents in discussions with teachers and school administrators.

“Emily has a very good ability to listen to the families’ concerns and needs, and act in the best interests of their kids,” says Bill Bickel, the archdiocese’s director for crisis relief and shelter services for Catholic Charities Indianapolis. “She has exceptional communication with the families about the importance of their children’s education.”

It’s one part of the children’s lives that can be an anchor, Able says.

“These families are going through so much turmoil, and the kids’ lives have been thrown into the air,” she says. “To be able to go to their school gives them a feeling of consistency. Maybe they’ve made a connection with a teacher or a lunch lady. To still get to see that face can make a difference. It’s powerful.”

So is the story she shares about a mother and her daughter.

The bonds between a parent and child

That story started in a parenting class that Able teaches at Holy Family Shelter.

One of the main goals of the class is to promote strong, healthy relationships between parents and their children. At one point, she asked the parents how they encourage positive behavior from their children. Their answers surprised her.

“They said they corrected them when they do something wrong,” Able recalls. “The idea of praising a child for good behavior was a foreign concept. It made me think that a lot of the young mothers hadn’t gotten that as a child. I asked them to try that—to search for the one thing that their child is doing right. We met a couple days later, and there was this one mom I’ll never forget. She broke down in tears about how her child got so excited that her mom finally saw something good in her.

“The mother saw how her daughter felt some sense of pride, and she saw how her daughter strived to get more positive feedback from her. Sometimes it’s those little seeds we can teach.”

Able credits her compassion for homeless families to the “seeds” that her mother planted in her as a child.

Her mother, Kathy Able, always told Emily, her brother and her sister how much they were blessed as a family. Kathy Able’s way of thanking God for those blessings was to do service projects with her children, especially efforts that provided food and clothing for people in need.

“She said, ‘This is our faith,’ ” Emily says. “She raised us to give back.”

The warmth of God’s arms

Her mother feels blessed by how those seeds have flowered in her daughter’s life.

“I couldn’t be more proud of her,” Kathy Able says. “I got a small taste of what she does on Christmas Eve. The shelter had a group come in for the families who were there. Someone in the group told the families that Jesus was homeless for a while, that he was born in a stable. All the kids got gifts. Then all the parents got blankets. They emphasized to the parents that the blankets had been specially handmade for them. And that when they are feeling bad to wrap themselves up in the blankets and feel God’s arms around them like a hug. Everyone was in tears.”

The warmth of such moments flames the efforts of Emily Able and the other staff members at Holy Family Shelter. It has especially helped during this harsh winter when the 23 bedrooms in the facility have been constantly occupied.

“There are a lot of moments of sadness here, but there are also the smiles on the kids’ faces, too,” Able says. “We give children new uniforms and backpacks and school supplies, and you see how that helps give them a renewed sense of

self-confidence as they get on the school bus. Then you see that mother who was yelling at her child the day before, and now she’s on the floor playing eye to eye with her child. And when someone here gets a job, that’s exciting for all of us.”

She talks again about the boy who cried because he had a cake for his birthday. She also mentions again the mother who transformed her daughter and herself with words of praise.

“Those things will stay with those families forever,” she says. “I just hope for a better life for all of our families.” †

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