“Essential Brooklyn“ is an 8-part series spotlighting the people and organizations working overtime to lift up their communities through the COVID-19 pandemic. These are the ones who give the most with the least resources. They’re our true essential workers, our community anchors; the ones who often go unnoticed, until you need them…. The ones who have been there for us all along.
In 1992, Samora Coles was living with her grandparents and going to high school like most 17-year-olds, when she found out she was pregnant.
Not knowing what to do or who to turn to, she went to her school to ask for advice and was given a choice: Drop out and become a mom, or stay in school. She chose the former.
Coles had to figure out how to raise a child while in school with no job, no income and little support. She said at least she had a roof over her head with grandparents, because many new moms don’t.
With her baby boy in tow, Coles moved from Brownsville to Red Hook when she was 21 years old. While figuring out bills, paying rent and parenting, she started working for an organization that, in 2006, gave her the opportunity to launch a program to serve her neighborhood. She said she knew immediately which group of people she had to help.
“It had to be teen moms,” Coles said. “I know if I had to go through what I had to go through, they must be going through something too.”
Coles started hosting a small support group for teen moms in Red Hook, and said, “moms just started coming out of nowhere, from Queens to Staten Island.” The teen participants told her that support groups closer to their own homes had laughed them away: “I’m like, ‘Of course, you’re 15 years old in a group of 30- and 40-year-old women,’” she said.
So she took in every teen mom or mom-to-be, no matter the borough, no matter the circumstance. And soon, she realized the level of need. In 2013, at age 38, she turned the program full-time as a nonprofit peer-led social service organization, which she named The Alex House Project (AHP), after her son Alex.
“He’s a real person,” she said. “He’s 28 now. He’s graduated from Coastal Carolina University; he is the backbone to the organization. He is our web designer; he is the tech person. Everyone has to meet Alex at some point, so they can see how your children can become a product of something greater than you.”
AHP sees moms under 25 years old, either parenting or expecting. As Coles said: “We don’t judge. You make your decision. And once you’ve made your decision, you call us, then we take it from there. Once you’ve called us, we are in your life for life; you can’t get rid of us.”
The pinnacle of AHP is an 8-week parenting program for young moms taught by former students. Once a mom has graduated, she gets the training needed to lead the course herself and support other new moms. “We are just the people in the back saying okay turn left … turn right … They are the captains of the ship,” Coles said.
On top of the parenting course, AHP provides health, education and general life support services, linking moms with healthcare, getting them reenrolled in school or GED programs; and providing in-house employment training and healthy meals. Arguably the most popular program is the music classes for the babies which, Coles said, has the babies singing and dancing at the sight of their teacher’s guitar.
AHP found itself in a predicament when kindergartens were ordered closed with the COVID-19 pandemic, as staff had been working out of a kindergarten in Red Hook while trying to raise money for their own space.
Knowing the pandemic would only be a more stressful time for parents, they pivoted and moved their services online. They are in the middle of their first totally virtual 8-week course, with peer educators and Alex House Project leaders holding Zoom classes for moms five nights a week.
Many of the moms in the current program are in a shelter, and T-Mobile has helped to connect them with devices for the course. Chef and restaurant owner James Freeman of Sweet Science and Sally Roots is delivering meals fresh to the moms for the 8-week program.
Coles said the silver lining of moving online has been girls from all over New York and out of state have reached out to AHP to find out how they get involved and become a part of the network. As well as being online everyday with young moms, Coles said all the AHP staff were taking calls and emails from moms past and present all the time.
Many of the mothers have become close friends though the program and check back in regularly with the staff. Coles said relationship building and creating a sense of motherhood were constant goals.
“For someone to be as young as sometimes 14 to want to take that path while already going through a situation themselves, but want to help someone else get through a situation, it is phenomenal,” Coles said.
She said through AHP’s seven years, she had gained more than 150 daughters.
And then one day recently, the dads came knocking.
Fathers need help too
Fathers started coming to Coles out of nowhere, and she said she wasn’t prepared to work with them, with the program designed on the premise of motherhood.
“They said if you’re going to help them, you have to help me too,” Coles said.
“So that’s what I had to do. They trusted me and for a lot of young black men to trust a woman about their situations, incarceration, joblessness, domestic violence issues, for them to trust me I had no choice but to make sure I had a space for them.”
She said right now around 25 young fathers from Brooklyn, Harlem, the Bronx and Staten Island came to AHP for workshops, and she just sat in with them in case they had questions. But it was really for them to talk together and find solutions.
She said she was still supporting them through quarantine. But, she said, out of respect for them, she was trying to find and fund a male director of the fatherhood program: “They see women all time; We’re always telling them what to do … their mothers, their grandmothers, whomever.”
No excuses for excellence
Rebecca Fishburne joined AHP as its first full-time staff member, and said she had willed the job into existence, because she has wanted to work for the organization since it was founded.
“AHP gives the girls a voice. It’s not like someone is talking for them; they’re talking for themselves.”
“AHP gives the girls a voice. It’s not like someone is talking for them; they’re talking for themselves,” Fishburne said. “And when they come to us, they’re so open.”
She said it was important for the moms to know being a mom was a lifelong journey, and that nothing from their past, or any lack of experience, had to determine their lives going forward.
“I didn’t graduate high school, I didn’t do this or do that; I had to work hard for everything I got,” Fishburne said. “I want them to know that past circumstances don’t predict your future; it’s up to you.”
The most important part of the work, she said, was to be there and to be honest. The AHP staff often accompanies new mothers to the hospital when they give birth and are there for them through everything.
“I tell them, I treat them just like I treat my kids: ‘Everything I expect from them, I expect from y’all,’” Fishburne said.
“I don’t think having a kid is an excuse to achieve nothing. If anything, it should tell you, okay I got to get up!”
“Because now, I have to do it for this one, and for myself.”