Story originally posted on telegram.com.
Janet was not safe in her home in Puerto Rico where violence was present. Wanting a better situation for her two children, she fled in 1995 and came to Worcester. After spending the first couple of months trying to figure out their next steps, she and her family moved to Abby’s House in 1996.
“I was in danger and I wanted a better life for my two children,” Janet said. “It was pretty scary at first, having to leave everything and having to start over again with two little children. But I had the strength, and Abby’s gave me the support I needed.”
Janet’s choice to escape the violence in her old home and eventually live at Abby’s House would have a lasting impact on her daughter, Rose.
Rose was 5 when she started living at Abby’s House with her mother and brother, Fernando. The family resided in Abby’s House for seven years. They lived in the basement of 19 Crown St. in a three-bedroom apartment. Rose first started working for Abby’s House 13 years ago as a receptionist. She is now the housing specialist at Abby’s House, where she leases out and maintains 79 housing units for the organization that once provided her shelter and housing as a child. More than 20 years later, Rose said she remembers how excited she was to take the corner bed in her family’s room at Abby’s House. She was impressed at how friendly founder Annette Rafferty and staff such as Ellen Clough, Elaine Lamoureux and Tess Sneesby were how willing they were to learn everything about the children.
“They were so willing to just know everything about us and to talk to us as kids and actually want to hear what we wanted to say,” Rose said.
Walking to Abby’s House’s old office in the basement of 21-23 Crown St. for help with homework and greeting the various women on staff was another vivid memory for Rose.
“It was my daily routine that I would do and I just really loved just knowing these strong women were there and just checking in with them every day and it was fun to see them and just telling them about their day. They wanted to hear me and they were interested and you could tell from their hearts that they wanted to know how my day was,” she said.
Rose still has the first teddy bear that she was given at Abby’s House on her first night. At Abby’s House, Rose said the staff helped all three members of the family in pursuing education. Staff supported Janet through a two-year program at Quinsigamond Community College to study education, helped Rose and her brother with homework and brought the children to summer school. Janet now works at Quinsigamond Elementary School as an educator for special needs children.
Rose said that being a single mother who was also attending college classes presented challenges for Janet, but Abby’s House helped watch over her and her brother while Janet was pursuing her education. Janet was also pursuing Section 8 housing and was on the waitlist before eventually getting her voucher.
“It was almost like a village. They were there to support my mom, to support us,” Rose said. “And whatever we needed they were there for us.”
Janet said Abby’s House brought activities to her children for them to have access to. She agrees that having the support of Abby’s House’s staff helped her with parenting during a difficult period.
“The community makes the child. Not only the family but its community,” Janet said. “It takes a village for kids to do well in life when they have so much trauma.”
The nearby Cathedral of St. Paul also brought solace for the religious Janet and the children were able to attend CCD classes at the church.
The whole family also needed to work through trauma, which Abby’s House provided counseling for. Rose said she had a general fear for her mother’s safety and felt very attached to her mother as a child.
“She’s the most important person in my life, she was my only parent,” Rose said. “I was always worried for her safety, so I had this fear that something wrong was going to happen to her. I had a lot of anxiety around it.”
Janet said she would feel the weight of her responsibilities at that time.
“I felt at the time a lot of responsibility, it was a lot for me to do. But I was able to do it. It did take a lot of courage and support that I was able to overcome it,” Janet said. “It wasn’t easy to do. It’s a lot of faith, believing in yourself that you can do it. That’s what it takes for a family to be able to be OK when they’ve gone through such a severe change, because I came without anything.”
As a child, Rose said she and her brother could sense that something was not right in their household in Puerto Rico, but Janet made sure to protect them from seeing the worst of the violence and fighting.
“My mom did a really good job of putting us first and really making sure she was protecting us at all times and making sure that we didn’t see the bad things and that things weren’t affecting us so badly,” Rose said. “She loved us so much and you could clearly see that safety was her top priority.”
Rose said she developed an extra sensitivity to her mother’s domestic situation as a child.
“When kids have gone through trauma, I feel like they have a sixth sense of these things. I feel like they are aware and they know what’s actually happening, maybe not all the details at the time, but they do have a sense that there’s something wrong going on,” Rose said. “And they’re trying to cope the best that they can.”
In hindsight, Rose said she remembers times when her mother took steps to protect her and her brother such as keeping down loud arguments and keeping some details secret. Rose remembers the flight that took them off the island, saying that it felt like a “journey” for her as a child. Rose now understands how serious her mother’s choice was.
“The move that she made was very drastic. She left everything she knew,” Rose said. “She left her grandmother, she left her mother, she left her house. It’s something that I see, now as an adult, how huge that was to do that for us. It’s a big sacrifice.”
Janet said the need to leave was so urgent that they left without even having winter clothes for the cold December days. While putting on a strong face for her children in both Puerto Rico and Worcester could sometimes be difficult as Janet dealt with her own internal pain, she worried that her children may be more affected by their situation if she did not protect them.
“I wanted them to be happy. I wanted them to be OK,” Janet said. “I know that what affects me is going to affect them and I have to think that I’m the adult and not them.”
Years after her time living in Abby’s House, Rose said her mother’s experience and her own time as a resident stay in her head as she does her current job.
“When I see the women coming through our doors, I do envision my mom when she walked through those doors. I try to be as compassionate and hospitable as possible,” Rose said. “I know that there was so much compassion and love and kindness, and I want to pay it forward and I want to give it back. I get very emotional talking about it because I love what I do and see the struggle and I understand how scary it can be to get help and to try to change your life from scratch.”
Janet is proud of her daughter’s work and understands Rose did not have it easy as a child. As she talked about the person her daughter became, Janet took a moment to gently touch Rose’s shoulder.
“She’s great, both my kids are, they don’t want to harm anybody and very respectful, that’s who they are and I’m very proud of them,” Janet said. “And it wasn’t easy, especially for children because it is a tough path that they had to go through. It’s not normal for a child to go through so much. And I just want to say that we have to be strong for them no matter what. Because they are both my babies.”