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Maintaining Perspective When All Seemed Lost

Anita outside her home.

At 27, Anita’s life is just beginning to blossom. “I’m happy!” said Anita with a bright and contagious smile. “I wouldn’t have been able to say that five years ago. I thought my life was over at 22. I thought it was too late.”

In August 2005, Anita moved from Bridgeport to Norwalk and suddenly found herself homeless. Unable to return to Bridgeport and live with her grandmother, her only option was to stay at Norwalk’s Emergency Shelter.

“I was scared when I first came to the shelter. I was very naive about a lot of things,” said Anita. People would say to me, ‘You don’t belong here.’ ”

Each morning after the shelter closed for the day, Anita joined other shelter residents who walked to Family & Children’s Agency’s Community Connections Drop-In Center on Water Street.

“The Drop-In Center is the first step in engaging people who are homeless and in need of treatment and rehabilitation,” says Chris Jachino, Director of Homeless Services at Family & Children’s Agency. “Clients can ‘drop in’ and talk with a case manager, use the phone, or visit with others seven days a week.  Case Managers also help clients establish and maintain basic essentials for daily living and explore housing options.”

Charlise Sellers, a case manager at the Drop-In Center, recalls when Anita first came in. “Anita was very quiet, very sheltered. She didn’t want to be bothered and was very much in her own shell.” Over time, staff developed a relationship with Anita and discovered she was suffering from depression.

“I first had to deal with the depression,” said Anita thinking back to the first step on her five-year journey.  Anita’s struggle with depression started as teenager but went undiagnosed until she came to the Center. “I always stayed isolated in my room and never came out,” recalled Anita of her teenage years.  Further exacerbating her situation was the fact that Anita was still dealing with the death of her aunt, who had cared for her most of her life, as well as the death of her mom, who died of AIDS when Anita was 19.

Anita.

Just as Anita’s life appeared to stabilize, the stress of living at the shelter overwhelmed her. “Anita was used to working and to having her own home,” said Charlise. “At the shelter your room is not your room, especially when you are sharing it with 30 other people. People are always asking you for something, trying to steal your toothbrush or your clothes.”  “I used to cry every single day,” recalls Anita of that time. Then Anita hit rock bottom. “One day I took all of my meds and tried suicide.  I thought my life was over,” she explained.

“Anita came in one morning and told staff that she had swallowed all her anti-depressants,” said Charlise. We took her to Norwalk Hospital and she was admitted to their mental health unit. “After that, I realized I made a huge mistake,” says Anita. “While I was there, I realized I love my privacy. I was able to think about a lot of things. I started to feel more positive.”

After being discharged, Anita continued her mental health treatment and her daily visits to the Drop-In Center. Working with various staff members, she signed up for health insurance, food stamps, and took refresher courses in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Acting on a prompt from one of the Center’s vocational counselors, Anita secured part-time employment at a local movie theater. It was then that her life started to get back on track.

Soon after Anita started working at the theater, Charlise learned that she was accumulating paychecks in her purse. Rather than just recommending a solution, Charlise drove Anita to a local bank and helped her set up an account. She recalls “the continuous smile on her face” after Anita completed that new step toward independence.

It wasn’t long before Anita started thinking about moving out of the shelter and once again, the Drop-In Center staff played a pivotal role. They showed her various housing options and together started filling out applications.

After living in the shelter for 15 months, Anita moved into an efficiency apartment at 40 S. Main, a supportive housing building where Family & Children’s Agency provides resident support services. “I moved in and never left my room that day. It was my place. I could make it as quiet as I wanted. It was a great feeling.”

Charlise recalls Anita feeling a little frightened by the responsibilities of having her own place; but, she remembers, “It turned out that she did a really terrific job. Being able to call it her own was a big catalyst; she was able to say ‘this is mine and I can do this.’ Once she got that house, everything else was able to fall into place for her.” Anita got a new car and secured more employment as a part-time home health aide.

Now, three-and-a-half years later Anita is ready to take her next big step. She has enrolled in the medical assistant program at Lincoln Tech in Shelton. “I’m very excited about going back to school. I’m very hands on,” said Anita. “A friend recently told me I motivate her.”

Looking back over the last five years, Anita admits that asking for help was one of the hardest things she did. “You’ve got to want it,” she exclaimed. “I had to practice being positive, it was hard. I practiced in front of a mirror.”

For Anita, maintaining that perspective and focusing on the positive really helped turn her life around.  “From when she came in until where she is now, I can only see progress,” said Charlise. There is no place but up for her.”

Creating a Permanent Home for Amiya

On June 8, a small group started to form outside a probate judge’s office at Norwalk’s City Hall. As the group waited, a sense of anticipation and excitement began to grow. Then as Judge Depanfillis called everyone into his office, the excitement turned to joy as six-year-old Amiya was adopted by her foster mom, Dinette .

“Anytime a foster parent adopts a foster child, it’s a wonderful occasion,” said Anne Schneider, Amiya’s foster care social worker.  “However, Amiya’s adoption was truly remarkable.”

What makes Amiya’s adoption so extraordinary is her six-year journey that removed her from her biological parents, placed her in a hospital for four years, and finally moved her into a loving foster home that has now become permanent.

Amiya with her mom, Dinette

Amiya’s story begins when she was born prematurely at 26 weeks. As a result of her premature birth, she suffers from a long list of chronic medical conditions including chronic lung disease, chronic intermittent airway obstruction, tracheal disease, and asthma.  Early on, Amiya had a tracheotomy, and continues to require constant medical monitoring and suctioning.

For the first four years of her life, Amiya lived mostly in hospitals. When she was an infant, her biological parents took her home briefly, but after an incident where she had to be airlifted to Yale/New Haven Hospital and then transferred to the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) determined that her parents couldn’t meet her medical needs.

Amiya in the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain.

Although Amiya flourished at the hospital, the nurses feared that she would end up living her life there. “DCF usually can’t find homes for kids with severe medical needs,” said Anne. “They usually end up living most of their lives in a medical facility.”

Dinette’s not exactly sure what prompted her to take the Foster Care training for a medically complex child at Family & Children’s Agency, but she is glad she did. “I guess you don’t know what is in your future,” she said. Shortly after taking the training, Dinette’s social worker called and told her about a four-year old girl in the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain.

“I was just going up to see her and check out the situation; I hadn’t made up my mind.” recalls Dinette of the first visit. “When I first saw her, I knew I had to do it.”

For the next five months Dinette traveled from Norwalk to New Britain to see Amiya once or twice a week. “I learned to suction her; I learned CPR; I learned the signs of distress, to monitor her when she is asleep. It was a lot, but it comes easy now.”

On June 5, 2008, Dinette was finally able to bring Amiya home. “The closer the time got to take her home, I would ask her, ‘do you want to come to my house?’ The day I went to get her, sure enough, she was ready to go.”

Amiya at home with her mom, Dinette.

“Over the past two years, Amiya has done exceptionally well with Dinette,” said Anne. “Together we have worked to get Amiya the proper medical equipment and care she needs, to get her into school, and to set her up so that she can start living as close to a normal life as possible.”
Amiya is currently attending first grade and is taking piano lessons.  Her cognitive ability is normal and she enjoys learning to read and write.

While her life is starting to resemble that of other children her age, Amiya still requires constant medical monitoring and has a nurse that accompanies her to school each day. She also has a nurse that monitors her from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., seven days a week. As she has grown, Amiya has learned to cough in a certain way so that she doesn’t require as much suctioning as she once did.  She has also stopped using sign language and is learning to speak in a soft voice. “She has a voice, just a weak one,” says Dinette. “You just have to listen and watch her lips.”

Amiya

In spite of all the changes and health challenges she has gone through, Amiya remains positive and happy. “Amiya has a nice personality and is very social,” said Dinette. “She makes you fall in love with her. She has quite a few friends at church and we are just starting to have kids come over to play with her.”

Although times have not always been easy, Dinette says the rewards of being with Amiya far outweigh the challenges. “It’s been great. There have been some rough times; but I don’t regret it.” She especially enjoys seeing Amiya’s smile.  “When I go into her room in the morning to wake her up, she always meets me with a smile. There are days that she says she can’t stop smiling.  And that makes you feel good because it lets you know that she is happy.”

Editors Note: On November 21, 2011 the Norwalk Hour ran an article on Amiya and her progress at school. Read Amiya can speak: A $2 app and an iPad gives a voice to a Norwalk girl.

Getting a Second Chance on Life

Karen and her daughter, Julianna.

When you walk into Karen’s two bedroom apartment in Stamford, the first thing you notice is how happy she is to be there. “This is a good place; it’s very secure,” said Karen. The second thing you notice is Julianna, her two-year-old daughter, with long, dark curly hair and a lot of energy. She is very verbal and eager to show off her small pile of books.

Karen and Julianna have been living in their apartment just over a year. They have made friends in the building and enjoy living close to downtown Stamford. “From where I was, to where I am now, I would have never guessed it. I would have never believed it was possible,” said Karen. “I have my own place, my own bills. It’s been a blessing to live here. Everything is getting better.”

What’s not obvious when you meet Karen and Julianna is the long journey they have taken to get to where they are – which is being together in a safe, stable, and healthy environment. Just two years earlier, Julianna had been placed through the state child protection agency, the Department of Children and Families (DCF), into foster care, and a judge had told Karen she needed to enter a drug detoxification program before she could get her back.

Rather than seeing her situation as one of loss and defeat, Karen saw it as a ray of hope and support. “After 27 years of using, I was done,” said Karen. “It wasn’t fun anymore. I had Julianna. I was done. I surrendered.”

Karen’s struggle with addiction first began with alcohol when she was in junior high school. Karen, who will soon turn 42, was born and raised in Fairfield, CT. Her mother was a school teacher and her father owned a shoe store.

“Dad was very ‘old school’ and hard on his kids. I rebelled,” she said. “I was very social and hung out with older kids who liked to party. I started to smoke marijuana. I loved the feeling of not feeling.” In high school she found cocaine. “We used to sneak into bars,” said Karen. “That is when I found cocaine. Every weekend I’d use alcohol and cocaine.”

After graduating from high school and realizing that college was no longer an option, she started to work. “Everything was drug-related,” she recalls. “I worked in bars and became addicted to the lifestyle. Doing cocaine and clubbing was the thing.” She soon landed a job working in retail and found a boyfriend. “I always had a boyfriend; I went from one boyfriend to the other. It was a fast lifestyle.”

In 1995, at age 28, Karen decided it was time to make a change and moved to California. “I got sick of everything. I thought I was going to turn a new leaf.” Her break from drugs lasted only seven months.

Over the next couple of years, she met her husband and got married. “He didn’t know that I was an addict. I’d use it at work,” she said. Her career then took off. “I was doing very well at my job; I made record sales, I landed huge clients and made a lot of money.” However, as a result of her chronic drug use, her marriage ultimately broke up. “I lost everything. I lost my job. I spent my 401(k) and my inheritance on attorney’s fees.”

In 2004, she decided it was time to get help. “I went into an extensive outpatient program. It cost $10, 000,” she said. “I did this for one-and-a- half years and couldn’t understand why everyone else’s life was getting better and not mine. It was because I was still using. I thought I could buy my way to recovery.”

In 2006, she was homeless and with a new boyfriend when she learned she was pregnant. “One day I called home. I told them I was pregnant and I wanted to come home. They said I could come home and take care of my mother who had been diagnosed with cancer.”

In 2007, she returned to Connecticut. “I left crystal meth behind. I was five months pregnant and became my mom’s primary care giver.” Four days later, Karen gave birth to Julianna.

Karen and Julianna share time together in their apartment.

It was then that Karen realized that she needed to surrender and put her life into someone else’s hands. She says that she was blessed with a “phenomenal” DCF worker who helped her get into the Liberation program, a nonprofit substance abuse program in Stamford. “People there really cared,” said Karen. “I spent my 40th birthday in rehab. It’s not what you aspire to when you are young, but it was reality. Life wasn’t how it was supposed to be.”

While in the program, she regained custody of Julianna but had nowhere to live. “Finding a home was really hard,” said Karen. Her DCF caseworker finally connected her to Family & Children’s Agency’s Supportive Housing for Families program in Bridgeport.

“Our goal is to keep children unified with their families by helping them secure safe, stable, and affordable housing,” said Yubany Cruz, a case manager for Family & Children’s Agency. “When Karen came in, we did an assessment, talked about her status in life, and her goals while in the program. In Karen’s case, those goals were to obtain housing, continue her substance abuse treatment, and keep her daughter.

Karen and Julianna at their apartment.

“Since moving into her home, Karen’s life has stabilized, and she has remained drug free. “Karen and Julianna have made a lot of progress since I’ve know them,” said Yubany, who continues to visit Karen weekly. “Her case with DCF was closed shortly after she received housing. She continues to be compliant with her recovery program, she helps other women who are in recovery, and Julianna has blossomed into a very adorable little girl.”

“I have no regrets; it’s what’s got me to this point.” said Karen. I’ve learned how to live. I’ve learned how to be a mother and a friend. I’ve learned that I can live without drugs. I’ve been given a second chance on life.”