A boost for new mothers

Zaiane Alawade holds her 14-month-old daughter, Naiilah, in her arms. Photo courtesy of Nurse-Family Partnership
An Upper East Side organization helps Medicaid-eligible women have healthy pregnancies and become self-sufficient

by emily higginbotham

When Zaiane Alawade found out she was pregnant following her freshman year at Fisk University, she resolved to continue on with her education and raise her child. After completing one more semester of courses in Nashville, the Harlem native moved back to New York and gave birth to her daughter, Naiilah, in March 2018. By June, Alawade was already back in school, taking an online summer course at Hunter college to stay on track.

“As an African American I always make it my business to beat the statistics,” said Alawade. “So not going back to school wasn’t an option and I told myself I wasn’t going to succumb to my circumstances.”

But with that summer course came a tuition balance, one she couldn’t afford to pay. She was not working at the time and received very little financial support. A hold was placed on her university account and she would not be able to resume classes at Hunter in the fall until the balance was paid. Suddenly, the path, which, before her pregnancy, had been clearly leading her to medical school to become an OB-GYN, had now become narrow and difficult to traverse.

Alawade thought she might need to delay her education in order work and pay off the balance — a delay that she knew could easily turn into a permanent absence from school.

Months before, however, a nurse from Nurse-Family Partnership — an organization that helps Medicaid-eligible, first-time mothers succeed in having their best, healthiest pregnancy — who had been making visits to Alawade’s home told her about the Heart’s Desire Fund. The fund is a program operated by the Upper East Side group Friends of NYC Nurse-Family Partnership, a separate nonprofit organization founded to raise funds for programs NFP could no longer finance. The fund helps the mothers who’ve been working with NFP to further their careers and educations by providing money for metrocards, laptops, childcare, tuition, which, in Alawade’s case, meant she could pay off her overdue balance.

Without the unpaid balance hanging over her head, Alawade resumed her studies as a full-time student at Hunter College and is continuing in her pursuit to become a doctor.

Continuing Home Visits

It’s a story like Alawade’s that Susan Orkin and Chris Wasserstein envisioned when they founded the Friends of NYC Nurse-Family Partnership. The two women met through their work with another organization, but had both been involved with NFP in the past.

“I was attracted to the program because I am a psychotherapist,” Wasserstein said. “I have long known about the early childhood experience and how if it’s abusive or neglectful the child has lifelong physical and emotional problems as well.”

But what intrigued her about NFP was their commitment to not only see the mother through her pregnancy (starting at 24 weeks), but also to continue home visits until the child is two years old. To Wasserstein, it showed that NFP valued healthy pregnancies, good parenting and the mother’s achieving self-sufficiency.

“[The mother] is incredibly motivated to become self-sufficient,” Wasserstein said. “I think she identifies with her new baby and wants to make a better life for the child, better than what she had.”

For a while, NFP had been using foundation grants to help fund programs that helped mothers become self-sufficient, but those grants eventually dried up. Since NFP is housed within the city’s government — which is not the case for other branches of NFP operating in other states — it cannot accept individual donations. Orkin, who has a background in philanthropy and fundraising, felt like a lot of money was being left on the table.

So, together, Orkin and Wasserstein, founded Friends of NYC Nurse-Family Partnership and started helping mothers like Alawade stay on track and become self-sufficient.

“We think and we know from what people are telling us, both clients and nurses, this is a huge benefit for clients as you can imagine,” Orkin said. “The nurses can encourage and motivate a client all they want, but if a woman doesn’t have enough money to go to school then she’s not going to go.”

“Or she’s going to take out a big loan and suffer from that for many, many years as so many students do,” Wasserstein added.

“I Am Focused”

In 2018, Heart’s Desire gave $50,000 to 61 mothers who live in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, including Harlem, Brownsville and the South Bronx. This year they hope to serve 80 more women, and have helped 34 additional clients so far.

Orkin and Wasserstein hope the tuition assistance, particularly unpaid balances, helps clear the path for women to further themselves.

“It could have taken her seven or eight years for her to do that if that balance hadn’t been paid off never mind she’s making progress, her child is more likely to move out of poverty much more quickly,” Orkin said of a mother whose balance was paid by the fund.

In Alawade’s words, she and her daughter are doing “fabulously.” She’s enjoying watching Naiilah grow and learn. She’s also working part-time and has a financial cushion. And she credits Heart’s Desire with her being able to not only stay enrolled at school full-time, but to thrive in her courses.

“Without HDF I would have had to work, I would have had to delay my matriculation through college, I would have had to find additional child care and pay the expense of that,” Alawade said. “In my field of study it is imperative that I am focused and because of the assistance I received from Heart’s Desire, I was able to be fully engaged in my classes. I couldn’t give them enough gratitude.”