Welfare mom with an entrepreneurial spirit: How my mom raised 5 leaders in the projects

How did she do it?  That’s a question I have heard from the time I was in grade school until now referring to my mother and her ability to raise five children, in public housing, while on public assistance,  and dealing with an alcoholic spouse.  Some may say it was luck, faith, and a combination of parenting practices that created an environment that centered faith and education.  Growing up in poverty there were many times when we had the bare minimum to eat and to sustain ourselves. As a stay at home mom, and administrator of all of the household’s financial affairs, my mother’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and her small retail business taught us lessons that catapulted each of us to where we are today. 

First, my mother taught us that out of necessity you can create opportunities for yourself.  My dad was a  taxi driver who worked six days a week, yet there never seemed to be enough money for food, clothes, or for anything for that matter.  My parents often fought about finances, specifically about my dad not having enough money to contribute to household expenses and him unwillingly giving her money. The food stamp and cash benefits she received from the city were not enough to feed and cloth five children. Eventually, she took matters into her hands and transformed my brother’s room into her retail store, where she sold bed sheets, comforters, towels and all kinds of clothes.  To replenish her inventory, we took turns going with her to Broadway Lafayette on the train from the Bronx.  She learned it from her dad, who owned several small colmados, or small grocery stores in the small community of San Francisco de Macoris in Dominican Republic where he sold household items, food and produce he grew on his farm.  

Second, my mother taught us the gift of negotiation and optimal customer service as a way of acquiring what you needed.  Wherever my mother went, she tried to haggle lower prices and did it with so  much grace and warmth that the sellers couldn’t help but give her discounts.  Whenever either one of us went with her to shop for her retail hustle, we learned that you don’t take no for an answer and that treating people with optimal love and respect will help you gain more respect, trust and more readily get what you want.  

Third, my mother taught us the value of faith and service.  There were people who came to the apartment to purchase items and would request a payment plan.  My mother always gave the customers that option and lovingly called them and followed up to make sure that she was paid what they owed her, often making house visits.  With her notebook and one of us in tow, we navigated the project buildings and knocked on doors visiting her customers, making connections while collecting money owed.  It was always done with sincerity, assertiveness, and love.  There were times where customers did not pay and being a devout Catholic she would say she would pray for them and she was still persistent in her follow up, with care, consistency and service.  

Lastly, she showed us the importance of having fun.  She took us to parks when the weather was good to have fun and relax, often meeting up with family.  Every holiday was a celebration at our home with so much dancing and joy.  She made light of most situations and coped with my father’s alcoholism and other family crises with poise and grace.  She even made visits to the welfare office bearable.  Visits to the welfare office were grueling for us as the caseworkers were often rude to my mother and made statements that evoked shame. We took turns translating for my mother and were challenged with wanting to insert our own choice words to the caseworks.   Through it all, my mother would maintain her calmness and optimistic demeanor despite the caseworkers’ negative disposition

When I think back on how my mother’s entrepreneurial spirit impacted each of us, I am overcome with gratitude.  While I struggled with the shame of being on public assistance and how my peers viewed it, I was also exposed to the ingenuity of how my mother’s retail business helped finance our Catholic school education from elementary through high school, helped support us a bit while we were in college and instilled in each of us so many values.  It taught us the value of creating opportunities for yourself, the art of negotiation and importance of treating people with respect and honor, the need for faith and service and  importance of incorporating fun in your life. 

Through her perseverance and her wisdom, she raised five successful adults who have each, in their own way incorporated these values.  My oldest sister is an assistant principal at a public school, my sister who is two years younger  is a Senior Advisor for Campus and Diversity Initiatives for college campuses at a nonprofit, my sister who is two years younger than her and a twin,  is a school social worker who founded a nonprofit in Rockland County.  Her twin is a managing director of global managed services and support, overseeing 160 people in IT services.  As for me 11 months younger than my twin siblings,  I am cofounder of Velocity Visions, Inc.,  a personal and professional development company, who helps individuals and organizations with  healing, transformation and wellness.  During the day I am a an Associate Director of Field Education at Columbia School of Social Work. In addition, I am a writer. I am working on a young adult novel, Born to Live about an Afro-Latinx from the Bronx. This semester, I am culminating my doctoral journey at the CUNY Graduate Center in Urban Education where I examined bilingual, Latinx school social workers and their roles as culturally responsive practitioners in the NYCDOE. Growing up in the Bronx in the 80s and 90s was a difficult time and my mother was able to use her entrepreneurial skills to raise children who are not contributing to society in a positive way. I am ever grateful for her life lessons and how they have impacted who I am today. 


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