by John Kelly, columnist
The Washington Post
December 27, 2014
Tatiyana Orr has heard the story countless times. The 16-year-old sits quietly on the couch of a Northeast apartment as her grandmother Alfreda Gipson recounts it once more.
“Tatiyana was 9 months,” Alfreda, 71, says. “It bothers me, and I tell her about it, because I want her to know what actually happened, how I found her. She was all alone. She was sitting in the middle of a bed, in a basement. She had a bottle and she was turning it down like it was empty. She was soaking wet. She had just a T-shirt on and a Pamper. When I went over to the bed, she reached out for me, and I picked her up. She laid her head on my shoulder, and I said I have to take her up.”
That was the day Alfreda decided she had to get custody of Tatiyana and her older brother, Christopher, now 18. The children’s mother — Alfreda’s daughter — just wasn’t capable of caring for them properly.
Theirs is not an unusual situation. Tatiyana has many friends with similar stories. According to the Pew Research Center, one in 10 U.S. children live in a household with a grandparent, usually in the grandparent’s home.
For Alfreda, Tatiyana and Christopher, there almost wasn’t a home. Four years ago, they found themselves at D.C. General, the District’s shelter for homeless families. Alfreda had had a long career as a registered nurse — for many years at Providence Hospital — but after her marriage ended, she’d fallen on hard times.
“I remember seeing a lot of people with not a lot of personal space,” Tatiyana says of D.C. General. “You’re used to your own room, but the surroundings are like: our family, then three other families right there, just clustered. That’s mainly what I remember.”
The three had to stay for only a few nights, though, because Alfreda was interviewed by a representative from Community of Hope, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand fundraising drive. Alfreda qualified for permanent supportive housing, a program that helps with finding a place to live for up to 15 years. During that time, the family is supported by various Community of Hope services aimed at breaking the cycle of dysfunction.
For example, because there’s no father figure in his life, Christopher meets twice a month with male mentors, something Alfreda thinks is invaluable. (Christopher, a senior, is hoping to go to college and study computer programming.)
The teens are on winter break from Eastern High, although Tatiyana — lately an honor-roll student — has plenty of work to do: a physics project, pre-calculus homework, preparing for the SATs she’ll take in February . . .
“I want to major in chemical engineering,” Tatiyana says. “It’s something I find fascinating.”
What about hobbies, I ask. “I knit scarves,” she says. “On the bus, I’m either reading a book or knitting. My friends are like, ‘You’re so old.’ I’m not old. It’s just something that relaxes me.”
“You just matured at a young age,” Christopher offers.
“That’s a good way to put it,” said Melissa Jakes, the housing- stability case manager from Community of Hope.
I wonder aloud whether that’s a legacy of being raised by a grandparent — you prefer knitting to video games — but Alfreda says she was never able to knit. This is all Tatiyana.
“I love going to art museums, because I love art,” Tatiyana says. “I’m like the oddball. When people want to go to the movies, I’m like, ‘Let’s go to the art gallery!’ They’re like, ‘Excuse me?’ But it’s fun. If you have certain people to go with, it’s fun.”
Alfreda and her grandchildren face plenty of challenges. Melissa tells them to focus on the future, even if the past can be hard to forget.
“I learned from my mom what not to do,” Tatiyana says.
Do you ever get tired, I ask, of hearing about that day 16 years ago?
“Sometimes, because when I was younger, it built up resentment against my mom,” she says. “I only got to hear other peoples’ opinions about her. Then once I got older and she used to visit more and spend time with me, I actually got to learn some types of reasons why she was that way. And I forgave her. In order to move on, you have to forgive a person. We’re building a mother-daughter relationship back up.
“And I love her, just like I love my grandmother.”
There are just two weeks left in our Helping Hand fundraising campaign. Your gift can help young people such as Tatiyana escape homelessness and focus on a better future.
Please make a tax-deductible contribution by visiting www.posthelpinghand.com and clicking where it says “Donate to Community of Hope.”
To give by mail, send a check payable to Community of Hope to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20032.
This article first appeared in The Washington Post on December 27, 2014.