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A game of chance

Last week, I met a woman named Nakia. Or actually, first I met her son, an adorable and well-behaved boy of four named Jahking.

I was sitting in a shaded corner on a coffee shop terrace with my laptop when he showed me his toy truck. His mother was on the phone, but she kept a close eye on him as she paced back and forth, back and forth, talking. It didn’t take me long to hear her conversation was not pleasant. She was working her way down a list of emergency shelters she’d gotten from a local police station, trying to find a bed for herself and her son.

homeless-and-pregnant21She wasn’t having much success, and the more shelters she called, the more frantic she became. Finally, when she burst into tears, I invited her to sit down.

While Jahking wolfed down a box of doughnut holes, Nakia shared her story. She’d lost her job, was evicted from her apartment, lost pretty much everything except what she could cart away in a couple of Hefty bags. A recent transport to Atlanta, she didn’t have local family or a support system to fall back on, and her savings didn’t last long. She and Jahking were literally on the streets as of noon that day.

How hard could it be? I thought. Atlanta is a big city, with an extensive support system for the needy. Together we called the rest of the shelters on her list.

As it turns out, finding a bed in this town is like winning the lottery, and here’s why ::

On any given night in Atlanta, there are some 10,000 homeless people — and more than 40 percent of those are women and children — and a shortage of 1,700 beds.

Nakia’s “problem” was that she wasn’t beaten, mentally ill, or a substance abuser, (and the fact I even have to type those words is preposterous), so she didn’t qualify for most of the emergency shelters we spoke to. Other shelters, shelters with long-term programs to help mothers like Nakia regain self-sufficiency, had long waiting lists and extensive application procedures. Every single emergency shelter we spoke to was full and operated on a first-come, first-serve basis, which meant finding a bed is a game of chance. What if Nakia hiked all the way down there and was turned away? Then what?

I wish this story had a happy ending. I wish I could tell you Nakia and Jahking found a bed, a job, a program that fed and clothed and sheltered them until they got back on their feet. What they “found” is a ticket back home, to family and circumstances she thought she’d escaped years ago.

And what I found is a new cause.

Finding your passion

photoFive years ago, when my daughter Isabella was not quite ten, she decided she wanted to give musical theater a try.

Appropriate, I remember thinking, for the worlds largest drama queen.

But after preaching to my kids that I don’t care what their passion is as long as they find it, I couldn’t say no. When Isabella came to me with hers, I had to put up or shut up, as they say. So I did a little research, found a local group about to hold tryouts, and signed her up. Two weeks and a couple hundred dollars later, it was a done deal. Isabella had snagged a part in MZ Stageworks‘ rendition of Aladdin.

That first musical, she was cast in the chorus. In the next chorus, too, as well as the next one and the next one. Still, even without lines or solos, she was determined to keep trying. Even though she watched new kids come in and get better parts. Even though she looked like she felt, especially in the beginning, incredibly uncomfortable and nervous up there on the stage. She simply refused to quit.

Much of her determination, I have to say, is because of the fabulous MZ staff. Miss Merrideth and her colleagues are so incredibly loving and encouraging, they turn what is so often a competitive and catty profession into a positive experience for these kids.

But my daughter is also a Swaak, which means when she sinks her teeth into something, you might want to back up. If you get in her way, things for you could get dicey.

This past December, though, Isabella surprised me. It wasn’t that she got a big part, or that she walked onto that stage and owned it. For me, the surprise came as soon as she opened her mouth and belted out her first line. The girl can sing. The girl can sing. Who knew? Apparently, not her mother.

But this mother has never been more proud.

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