Alan Turin has the kind of life many people wish for. He has a successful career, a happy marriage, and two grown daughters who were recently married. So when he reached his mid-50s he realized that it was time to give something back.
On the other hand, Angela Frazier has a life that very few wish for.
She is a single mother of four children between the ages of 9 and 14, three with significant developmental disabilities. And as one would expect, she describes her life as one of exhaustion: “After all, I am my children’s everything. I am their mother, their father, their cook, their teacher and their nurse.”
Her children are so impaired that one is incontinent, another cannot read, and another needs help getting dressed. To deal with her stress, Frazier has sought support for herself and her children. “Sometimes the burden of being the only one is too much to bear, and the only relief I can get is when I have a ‘pity party,’ go to bed and feel sorry for myself. But when the next day comes, usually I am ready to start again. I have heard the saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ but I don’t have anyone. Not a mother or father, it’s just me and my kids.”
In days bygone, people sat on their front porches in the evening and chatted with their neighbors. It was not unusual for a family to live in the same house for two or three generations. Typically, people had friends and extended family in the immediate neighborhood.
Now homes don’t have front porches; we have replaced them with the privacy and isolation of a back deck. Three out of five Americans move every five years. It may take a village, but our village is often filled with people we don’t know very well.
That kind of isolation prompted the Children and Family Services of Central New Jersey to start a mentoring program a decade ago. The agency noticed the demand for social services was skyrocketing, and many people in need were unable to obtain help through traditional routes. The program is based on the belief that ordinary people, individually lending concern, aid and abilities, can be a great lifeline to those in crisis.
Angela Frazier had been looking for help for many years. So when she read about the mentoring program in the newspaper one night, she called immediately.
Alan Turin had also been looking for something for many years. When he was a young man, Turin taught school in a high crime neighborhood in South Philadelphia. He loved teaching and had always wanted to again be a resource for children. So when he discovered the mentoring program, he also called immediately.
After several evaluations and eight hours of training, Turin felt ready. He was clear that his primary job was to listen, be a companion and emotional resource.
Then he was assigned to mentor the Frazier family.
Despite some initial apprehension, Angela Frazier was thrilled with the role Turin took in her family: “He accepted all of my children and not just one. Alan taught them about computers, took them on trips, and even took them to his house. But it wasn’t what he did with them that was important, it was the fact that he was giving them his time and they had something to look forward to.”
When I asked her what she did with this precious free time, she laughed. “Nothing really. Sometimes I cleaned the house, or just lay in bed and listened to the silence.”
The Frazier family were not the only ones who benefited from the relationship.
“I expected to meet a family facing some adversity,” Turin said, “but what really overwhelmed me was how much of an advocate this woman was for her children. Despite her own struggles, all she was concerned about was making sure her children’s life was easier than hers. She wasn’t looking for a handout – just some support and companionship for her children.
“I expected this to be a labor of love, but it was a sheer joy for me. I was able to spend time with children who had precious little and yet they still knew how to laugh and smile and have a good time and make the most out of their young lives. I expected to give. But instead I learned my own valuable lessons about the human spirit. This kind of work is a constant reminder about how fortunate I have been and how much gifts of one’s time and interest means to kids.”
When the Fraziers moved and Alan was no longer able to work with them, Angela felt like she lost a friend. “Frequently he and I would share stories about our lives. He was a caring man and a good listener. We all knew that Alan was trying to make our lives a bit easier, and he did. But what was most important was his acceptance. To know that someone is willing to accept you into their lives – that means everything.”
Programs like these are not magical, nor are they complicated. They are just about people helping one another. Not necessarily people with more money helping people with less, or people with more intelligence helping those with less. It’s just people with compassion helping people who desperately need it.
The family mentoring program serves Middlesex and Mercer Counties and is the only one of its kind in the region. Contact the offices at 609-448-0056.