Saturday, February 13, 2010

Chapter Two

The best part of pursuing a dream is watching the small, daily rewards. Vanessa frequently found herself staring out the office window, watching the kids playing in the yard, laughing gleefully. Perching her chin in one hand, she rested her elbow on the desk corner and got lost in the small bodies running to and fro, kicking the balls across the playground and climbing on the long, horizontal logs. She remembered the day that she and her friend Eric had put them there.

"You really sure kids will like this?" he had asked, dropping the last end in place with a huff.

She has smiled at him. "I'm so sure they'll like it," she replied, "that I can guarantee you will hear happy squeals the next time you're here volunteering."

That had been five years ago. Eric had gone on to finish medical school and was in his first year of residency. Somewhere between that and the unending line of women he seemed to date, they had lost track. Mental note: give Eric a call.

Vanessa didn't know if the center would have made it without the dedication of her friends. When she had first proposed her idea over a night of shots at the local pub, she had half expected her friends to snicker in that way they had of indicating she was a lost, idealistic cause. She had expected the jokes about her unbelievable optimism, the skepticism that there was no way to bring about the dream she had imagined. What she hadn't expected was the interest expressed and the pursuant deep conversation over how to a group of individuals could create a nonprofit human services center for the children in Queens who needed it. She had seriously underestimated her friends.

And they had underestimated her as well. When they sat down together a week later, no one had been prepared for the extensive three-hour presentation she gave them, complete with extensive notes and financial plans, grant opportunities, and potential real estate possibilities. Sure, they all knew she was smart; she had proven that with two master's degrees and her ability to hold conversations with a variety of professors and guest lecturers for years. But developing and implementing an extensive human services program for the city's underprivileged families was an entirely different story. When her friend Allie asked her how she was going to build this place, Vanessa's answer was immediate. With a wry half-smile, she'd replied with a line from her favorite Beatles song: "With a little help from my friends."

So they all moved into the project together. Fourteen middle-class twentysomethings, pooling their resources, brought the center into being. A brother of a friend was a realtor and helped to locate a property near the projects; a mother of another friend assisted with grant writing projects. Friends volunteered on the weekend to bring the building up to code, and the word had spread that a new program was available for the families in the area. Someone donated a security system and somebody else installed it. Through the whirlwind of that first six months, Vanessa found herself amazed and humbled at how quickly her dream had come together. Never in a million years had she expected that he dream would become a reality, and certainly not this quickly. And when her friend Eric had helped to move those logs to the playground--one of the final steps before opening--she had looked around her and realized that something larger than herself had been at work throughout the process.

Fast forward five years, and here she sat, chin in her hand, watching the children climbing on said logs, drawing with chalk on the sidewalk, kicking and throwing the balls to and fro. The best part of the job. She suddenly became painfully aware of the stack of papers her elbow was resting on--papers needing to be filed, signed, mailed, addressed. Turning her attention away from the window, Vanessa dug in to the task at hand.

Forty minutes later a knock on the door got her attention. She looked up to see Gloria in the doorway. "You got a minute?" she asked, hip against the door frame.

Vanessa grinned. "For you?" she asked, putting down the papers she had gathered in her hand. "Maybe even more than a minute."

Gloria entered the office and closed the door. Although she continued to smile, Vanessa picked up on the change in her demeanor almost immediately. Gloria eased herself into a chair across from the desk and brought her eyes up to Vanessa's. The smile didn't waver and Vanessa immediately felt her insides churning. This unending smile of Gloria's never brought good news. Last time it was a blind date with Gloria's husband's cousin.

"So..." Vanessa forced herself to maintain eye contact. "What's going on?"

Gloria continued to smile, but a seriousness hid distinctly behind her dark eyes. "You remember last week when we went to the police officer convention? I've been thinking."

Vanessa bit her tongue on her reply. The temptation to respond, "Thinking is dangerous for you," was almost there, but she caught it in time. Besides, she was a bit curious. Gloria did tend to come up with some interesting ideas at times. "Okay...I'll bite...whatcha thinking about?"

The smile became more intense, and the eyes didn't deter. "I got a phone call yesterday from the police chief downtown. Apparently you made quite an impression on the officers. Several of them have proposed creating a volunteer program working with the kids in the center. There seems to be a strong interest in working with the after school program. The more I've thought about it, the more I can't come up with a good reason to turn them down."

Chewing on the end of her pen, Vanessa thought about Gloria's proposal. "You know the parents are going to resist this...their experiences with law enforcement have been pretty bad."

Gloria focused her penetrating gaze on Vanessa again but this time, dropped her smile. "All the more reason to do it. We need to build bridges in this community."

Vanessa stopped chewing and met Gloria's eyes again. "I'm not saying we shouldn't do it, " she clarified. Pushing her chair back, she stood and walked around the small office, pacing the best the tiny space would allow. "This is an opportunity for our clients to build positive relationships with people who have always been the enemy. I just think it's a complicated issue and we need to consider how to go about it. Did they have something in mind?"

Gloria exhaled. It was clear to Vanessa that she had expected to be shot down completely and was somewhat surprised by her boss' response. In the two years she and Vanessa had been working together, she knew the younger woman to be even-keeled but extremely passionate and protective of her "clients"--the predominantly African-American community surrounding and using the center. It was no secret that the police had a negative reputation in the community. They were seen as outsiders who protected their own and cared little for those who were struggling in the projects.

"Well," said Gloria carefully, "the chief started off talking about something big...a big organized date or something for the police to come out and do a presentation..."

"Oh God," Vanessa replied, rolling her eyes.

"BUT," Gloria interrupted quickly,"I talked him into starting small...suggested we do something that would maybe introduce an officer or two at a time to the families. You know, less intimidating, better at building a safe relationship."

Vanessa sat down in her chair again. "Gloria." Just a word, then picking up her pen, she began to chew on the cap again. "So who's the lucky chump?"

To this Gloria grinned wholeheartedly. The Vanessa she knew and loved. "His name's Goren. He's a detective. Robert Goren. He's going to come by tomorrow morning around ten."

The cap stopped moving, but her eyes didn't look up. A slow smile emerged on Vanessa's face, followed by a sarcastic chuckle. "Heh,"she mumbled, shifting the pen cap in her mouth. "Way to go, Detective Goren. Do you think he's young or stupid?" Then, after a sigh, "Never mind. We take 'em however we can get 'em, don't we?"

Now Gloria laughed. "Yes ma'am, we do," she responded. Then, quickly, "And neither of us is young OR stupid." Pause. " least not stupid."

Vanessa tossed the chewed up pen cap at the door as Gloria closed it. Not THAT young, anyway.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Chapter one

It all started on a day like this one.

Not hard to imagine. At least, she had never had trouble imagining it before. Stretching, she pushed the covers off of her chest, allowing them to rest at her waist. Somehow, she thought, I always imagined once I got here that mornings wouldn't suck like they do. Surprise. Still sucking.

Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she stood, surveying the mess of a room around her. Her mother had always insisted on cleanliness, with it being next to Godliness and all. She was more realistic. Working twelve-hour days rarely left her the time, energy, or motivation to do much other than toss some clothes in the washer and use a quick wipe on the bathroom sinks. There was the possibility of a housekeeper, but that required money that she'd rather reinvest where it was needed--downtown in the center. In the meantime, she could live with the mess. It wasn't as if anyone else was going to be subjected to it.

She showered quickly, as she always did, and dressed for the day. Black slacks, red turtleneck, minimal jewelry, low heels. Enough to make a positive impression without being overwhelming. She wanted any investors to know she took them seriously, but that their money was going to the right places--and none of those being her pocketbook. She wasn't expecting investors today from the police officer crowd, but you never knew who might have a great-Aunt Addie storing money away under a mattress. Besides, she wanted these officers to know about the center and its services, and to see her as a resource in the community and a professional who could help young trauma victims. She needed to be relatable without being too fancy or casual. After checking herself in the mirror, she grabbed her old leather blazer from the hallway closet before nearly tripping on the sleeping form in the floor.

He lifted his head, somewhat cockeyed, and looked her up and down. It wasn't as if they hadn't gone through this routine before. All of the days when she was nervous, fundraising, working long hours to make it happen, she forgot about him. And a swift kick in his ribs reminded both of them of his presence.

"Damn. Sorry, Bruce," she muttered, petting him on the head. "C'mon, but you'll have to be quick this morning." The old bull mastiff stood up stiffly and stretched before moving toward the door. Once she had let him out, she refilled his bowls--food, check; water, check--then called to him to come back inside. He slowly ambled past her. Twelve years together, and he knew what to expect from her, and she from him. This comfort in their relationship made him the best companion that she had ever known. She scratched behind his ears gently as he began to eat.

"Good guy. I'll be home this evening. Don't mess anything up, you," she said as she headed for the door.


She arrived at the conference hall twenty minutes early. Speaking for different groups was a critically important part of her job, but not one that came easily to her. She could already see that the room was milling with a variety of police officers, detectives, agents, and other professionals who often found themselves on crime scenes involving children. How many were there today--four, five hundred? Jesus. She knew they had told her it would be a big crowd, a few cities' worth, but she hadn't expected this many at one time. Who in the hell was manning the streets?

"There you are!" Gloria approached her quickly, name tag in hand. "Have you seen the crowd? This is an incredible opportunity for us to get the word out about the center and our work. Are you ready?"

She sighed and smiled. Gloria was all energy, all the time. That's what made her one of the best damn counselors the center had to offer. Gloria had a knack for helping everyone feel heard and respected. From the councilman who visited the center last month to show his support prior to election day to the crack-addicted father working on seeing his kids regularly, Gloria had an ability to cut through the bullshit while maintaining individual respect and integrity.

"Yes. As ready as I'll ever be," she said, then leaning closer, whispered, "You know, Gloria, this public speaking stuff would be right up your alley."

Gloria's smile turned to a set grimace. "Look, Vanessa...this is your baby. I'm happy to play nanny and do what I can to make it successful. But you're the one who needs to talk about it. You bring it to life in a way nobody else can. You conceived it and you live it. All you have to do is to explain your passion to these people in the next room." Affixing the name tag to Vanessa's turtleneck, she said firmly, " convinced me of it. You can convince them too. It's another resource for the children in this community."


"Ms. Rayden?" Vanessa turned to see a large, older man in dress blues. "I believe we're about ready to start. Is that all right with you?"

With more confidence than she ever felt at these things, Vanessa nodded her head firmly. "Absolutely, Chief. Thank you for the opportunity." She watched him approach the stage.


Three p.m. and she had finally reached her office.

With a sigh of gratitude, she kicked off the mini-heels she had worn for the morning, then slipped her feet into some more comfortable slides. Vanessa sat back in her desk chair and closed her eyes for a moment, reliving the morning.

"How many children did you say your center serves each year?" The officer was young. She could tell. He was jotting down notes fervently in his notebook, as though her words were golden. His young face was tight, serious; his older partner, sitting to his left, looked amused at the rookie and all of his writing.

"It depends on how long and how extensive the services are," she had replied. "We offer a co-op preschool for parents and their children, which is designed to give parents tools to be successful in the world outside of the center. That section houses approximately thirty families. We also offer a full-time preschool for children whose parents are actively working a twelve-step program while re-entering the work force. In addition, we offer an after-school program for older children of these parents, as well as a separate after-school program for neighborhood kids. All of these programs also include wraparound services, such as counseling and case management. All in all, we're looking at around two hundred families at any given time."

"And your success rate?" This came from the front row. Head down, she hardly even knew which one of the men had spoken to her until he lifted his eyes. "Or," he stated again, "your rate of recidivism?"

She immediately felt defensive. Despite everything that she could offer, she couldn't make people take help who don't want it. "We don't look at the services we provide in the context of success or failure," she explained, maintaining her composure. "We tend to look at it in terms of progress."

He didn't lift his head, but continued. "How are you able to justify expenditures in your program without numbers outlining your success?"

She hadn't intended to get into this aspect of it. Of course, when she wrote grants and spoke to bigwigs and corporate CEOs and such, this was just the kind of thing she spent hours explaining. But the charts and graphs were at home today. And at this point, she kind of wished this guy, with his notebook and slightly odd mannerisms, was too.

"Well," she began, "I have an entirely different presentation I give for people who are interested in the question you posed. Unfortunately, I've left that part off the powerpoint--I didn't want to bore the entirety of four police departments with details about the finances of this program. I'm sure you all get financial memos enough as it is." Chuckles. Good, she thought, I haven't lost them. "However, since you asked--we establish a certain number of common criteria that indicate the success of our program. These criteria are not limited to certain individuals, but to children, adults, families, and the community as a whole. We then measure the success of these criteria over time to determine if our efforts are worthwhile. For example, looking at our wraparound services provided for families in need of childcare...we examine criteria such as job length and salary for parents, level of stress in the home, academic and social behaviors of the children, etcetera. After taking baselines when the families enter the program, we can later establish the ups and downs that any particular family may experience while in the program. That data then serves to guide our spending."

He had seemed satisfied. His eyes met hers briefly and he nodded, then returned to writing whatever notes he had deemed important.


Her eyes flew open, back to the current moment, her office, her comfortable shoes. She saw the tears before anything else, and she reached for a tissue. Molly took it from her hand and passed it to the child, who wiped his eyes and his nose.

"What happened, Samuel?"

Samuel stood frozen, eyes downward. Molly stood over him, slightly smiling and stroking his head. "Go ahead," she murmured. "It's okay to tell her. We just need to talk about it."

He took a deep breath. " I got really mad at Molly and I hitted her on the arm and I didn't mean to and now..."-he shuddered-"are you gonna make me leave school? Cuz my mom says I can't go to no good schools if I hit people."

Vanessa maintained a sympathetic look. These parts of her day were the reasons that she did what she did. "Well, Samuel, your mom's right--you can't hit people and you can't do good things if you keep hitting. Did you and Molly talk about what happened?"

He looked up at his teacher. "Yeah."

"And did you figure out what to do?"

This time his eyes went back to the floor. "Yeah. Next time I get mad I need to take a big breath and let it out. And I might need to go sit away from who I'm mad at. And I need to tell you."

She smiled at him. "Sounds like a plan."

"So..." eyes still at the floor, "do I still get to go to my school?"

She reached for his hand, and he looked at her eyes again. "Yes, Samuel. You can always come to your school. This is the school where we learn how to make good choices so we can do good in all our other schools."

She watched the relief move from his eyes down his face, to his mouth, and finally into his tiny hand, that squeezed hers. "I promise I'm gonna try real hard, Nessa. Kay?"

"I know you will." Vanessa smiled at the boy, then at Molly, and nodded to her door. Both left, with Samuel chatting eagerly about apples and milk to Molly.

Vanessa sighed, repeating the mantra she had told herself all this time. Do what's needed, not what's easy.

Repeat daily, 365 times a year.