Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sneakers and Hope for Ethiopian Single Mother

Faven Weinu, 31, with her daughter, Savanah, 7. Ms. Weinu has been receiving support from Brooklyn Community Services to buy clothing and to help her cope with single motherhood.
The biggest clue might have been her right sneaker. The young mother had worn those Nikes every single day for six years, and now her big toe protruded through a hole in the front. As Faven Weinu walked through the rain or snow in Brooklyn, people would “freak out,” but she did not listen to them — she was, as she put it, “disconnected.”
Over the past few years, she had gained more than 100 pounds and had stopped showering regularly; she had all but given up — on the outside world, on herself.
“It’s tough to talk about, even now,” Ms. Weinu, 31, said slowly about the crippling depression. Her current form of identification, a United States passport from 2002, reveals a slim and bright-eyed woman who was, she said, “active and outgoing” and who had, as an immigrant, shown a determined resourcefulness in adapting to her new country.

Though her parents had divorced when she was 2, she describes having a “beautiful childhood” in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. At 15, she flew solo to join her mother in New York. She was nervous on the long flight, and though she spoke only Amharic, she laughed throughout the movie being shown, despite not understanding a single word delivered by the actor, Jim Carrey.
The language barrier proved problematic when she enrolled in a public high school. “The first day of school, I went to the principal, and I said, ‘Could you call my mom, please? I want to go home,’ ” Ms. Weinu remembered.
She stuck it out for two more years but left in the 11th grade to train in a culinary program. It was an ideal fit. “I grew up with cooking, my aunts cooking around me. Just watching people eating my food and being satisfied, it was worth it,” Ms. Weinu said. There was something else: She had fallen in love with another student in the class, and a relationship had blossomed.
Life was good: work came steadily, first she made sandwiches with the Così company, and then she worked as a prep cook for a chain of hotel restaurants. Ms. Weinu loved the work, and the paychecks allowed her to move out on her own.
And then, heartbreak: In 2005, after four years in their relationship, the man she had loved left her without any explanation. “I was completely shattered,” she said.
Problems compounded. Restaurant employers were now demanding a high-school equivalency certificate, which she did not have. Then Ms. Weinu discovered she was pregnant. She had dated the father only briefly after her relationship ended and had no contact with him.
It was all too much. “When I got pregnant, I was a different person — I wasn’t the same as I was before,” Ms. Weinu said. “It’s like you get stuck, and you can’t move.” Pride kept her from telling family or friends about the pregnancy; she realized she was in labor only when a neighbor told her so.
At the hospital, she replied “none” when asked about what prenatal care she had received. This caught the attention of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, forcing the new mother to go to court to prove herself. A judge awarded her custody of her baby daughter but referred her to Brooklyn Community Services for counseling. She credits the agency with changing her life. “They helped me to grow up; they gave me the tools to be a good mom,” she said.
Living in a shelter with the daughter whom she named Savanah Dream, Ms. Weinu focused all of her attention on the young girl, and Savanah began thriving socially and academically. But Ms. Weinu, still depressed, neglected herself in the process. “I was showering once a month, I wasn’t dressing properly, I was off track,” she said. “It was that bad, but I couldn’t see.”
But Savanah, by then 5 years old, did. “She asked me: ‘Mommy, why don’t you ever want to go out? Why aren’t you a people person?’ ” Ms. Weinu said: “That was a waking-up point for me because she was paying attention. I didn’t know she was paying attention, so that was a bombshell.”
In 2010, she returned to the agency for counseling, this time to focus on herself. Ms. Weinu said she had since made healthier choices and lost 45 pounds, in part by playing outside with Savanah, now 7. With the agency’s help, she enrolled in a G.E.D./work-training program and Advantage NY, a rent-subsidy program that allowed the mother and daughter to live in a Brooklyn apartment. Ms. Weinu refers to the organization as her “second family,” one that she relied on this summer when an eviction notice appeared at her door. Unbeknown to her, the subsidy program had been cut.
Becoming homeless was a devastating setback, but Ms. Weinu remains determined to stay on track. Each day, mother and daughter trek 90 minutes each way from a Bronx shelter to Brooklyn for Savanah’s school and Ms. Weinu’s work and G.E.D. program. Finances are a struggle, as the family receives about $800 a month in assistance. Ms. Weinu said the agency, one of the organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, helped her keep from getting overwhelmed.
Ms. Weinu received $200 from the fund to do something she had not done in many years: buy clothing for herself.
“They even helped me to get a sneaker,” she smiled, referring to her size 9 Nike shoes. The bright, purple mesh and fuchsia trim are hard to miss, as is the brightness in Ms. Weinu’s eyes.
“I feel like my old self again,” she said.