Tamie and Lavenia: Could their friendship be a key to reducing child poverty?

'It's not a one-way street'

CINCINNATI -- This is a story about two women from different generations, different neighborhoods and different races.

Despite all those differences, Tamie Sullivan and Lavenia Jones have become such close friends that they think of each other as family.

"I just latched onto you," Jones said with a laugh.

"It's not a one-way street," Sullivan replied, smiling. "We can talk about anything."

Sullivan, who is 55 and lives in Hyde Park, comforted Jones after the death of Jones' grandmother. Jones, who is 28 and lives in Northside, helped Sullivan understand the raw emotions surrounding the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri. Their families spent this past Thanksgiving together at Sullivan's home, and sometimes Sullivan takes Jones' kids to see Disney movies that her own two sons are too old to appreciate.

The closeness developed over time, to be sure. But both women have gained so much from their relationship that Sullivan wonders whether it could be a model of sorts for a program that's set to launch this year.

Lavenia Jones, 28, and Tamie Sullivan, 55. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

Called One to One, the program is being developed by the Child Poverty Collaborative and United Way of Greater Cincinnati to help reduce the region's shameful child poverty rate.

RELATED: United Way to redirect millions to fight poverty

Though One to One is still in its infancy, the idea is to match up 5,000 families living in poverty with "life coaches" who can work with them to help them reach their goals. The thinking at this point is that the life coaches would be people who have had similar life experiences and would be paid for their work. But the program probably also will have a role for volunteers from different walks of life to offer support, just as Sullivan and Jones support each other.

"If that could be multiplied across thousands of people across our community, that's going to have a transformative impact," Ross Meyer, United Way's vice president of community impact, said of the women's friendship. "We think there's a way to have everybody coming together to help."

One trick for the program, of course, will be making good connections so families, life coaches and volunteers can establish trusting, respectful relationships that benefit everyone.

For Jones and Sullivan, the trust developed gradually as they opened their minds and hearts to each other.

They shared their story with WCPO in hopes that it would inspire others to reach beyond their neighborhoods, religious congregations and alumni groups -- beyond the sameness that surrounds so many of us -- to forge friendships with people from different walks of life.

'My only white friend'

Sullivan and Jones met about four years ago.

Sullivan was doing public relations work for VISIONS Early Learning Center in the West End, which focuses on helping young moms improve their lives while providing quality childcare for their children. Jones had her kids enrolled there at the time, and the VISIONS staff suggested she would be a good mom to talk with a reporter working on a story about the childcare center.

 

 

 

Sullivan listened as Jones described her parenting struggles.

"She has a son with special needs, and I have a son with special needs," Sullivan said. "She actually made me tear up when she was telling the story about her son."

That mom-to-mom connection prompted Sullivan to call Jones to ask how she was doing.

Later, Jones called Sullivan while she was shopping at a thrift store for an interview suit. Jones was about to graduate from Chatfield College and told Sullivan that she was applying for an AmeriCorps job with Public Allies. Sullivan was familiar with Public Allies because of her work on the board of BRIDGES for a Just Community, which used to manage Public Allies Cincinnati.

"When she called me about Chatfield, she had made the honor roll. You were sharing good news," Sullivan said, turning to Jones. "I felt like right away I could be supportive of what you were doing."

"From there, she really took an interest because that was something she knew about," Jones said. "I didn't talk to her for weeks after that. But I had made it. I had gotten into the program."

The two women began talking more and more. Still, Jones was a bit guarded initially.

"In Cincinnati, we are very segregated," she said. "I never really had a lot of interaction with white people."

Tamie Sullivan with Lavenia Jones' kids on a movie day.

Jones had grown up in all-black neighborhoods and went to all-black schools. As a child, her mom had warned her about how to act and what to say around white people, and that had made her distrustful.

As her relationship with Sullivan developed, Jones told her: "You're my only white friend."

It was a new kind of friendship for Sullivan, too.

'Privilege' and poverty

While Jones had spent her childhood staying sometimes with her grandparents, sometimes in foster care and sometimes with friends, Sullivan grew up differently.

"I come from privilege," Sullivan said. "My father is a doctor. He worked very hard to get there. He's the son of immigrants -- it's not like there was family money."

Still, Sullivan's family was well-educated and hard-working.

"Along with that comes access and opportunity," she said. "If you spend any time thinking about what that brings to your ability to move forward in this world, you'll realize that somebody like me has access to job opportunities or knows people."

Opportunities and networks that someone like Jones simply did not have.

"I have thought very deeply about the lack of relationships between somebody like me and somebody like Lavenia," Sullivan said.

When Sullivan and Jones first met, Jones and her kids were living in public housing. Jones was only 16 when she got pregnant with her first son. She dropped out of high school because she wanted to work to support him. She got pregnant with her second son when she was 18.

"I was perpetuating a cycle," Jones said. "My mom and my grandma, they were teen moms, too."

Things began to change for Jones when she became pregnant for the third time. She was 20 years old and found out she would be having a daughter.

Tamie Sullivan with Lavenia Jones and her kids acting silly.

"Because she was a girl, I just had an epiphany," she said. "It was, 'I can't keep doing this. I can't keep depending on men.'"

Jones went to Job Corps, earned her high school equivalency diploma and got her driver's license. She felt like she had made it, but the counselors there had bigger plans. They took her into an office, shut the door and told her she needed to go to college.

"I was so angry. I was crying," Jones said. "Reluctantly, I signed up. It was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Jones got her two-year degree at Chatfield. And now she's in her junior year at Xavier University, pursuing a bachelor's degree.

She's also working part-time as a cashier at one of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's Cincinnati thrift stores -- a job that Sullivan helped her get.

"Who would have known -- that's the best job I've ever had," Jones said.

'What hard work looks like'

But Sullivan is quick to say she isn't the one responsible for that.

"I opened the door for her -- that's what these kinds of relationships can do for people," Sullivan said. "I told her, 'You have to bring it home. You have to get the job.' And she did. I knew she would."

Jones' life has changed a lot since she became friends with Sullivan.

She left public housing and now pays market-rate rent in Northside. She still gets food stamps and government-funded childcare assistance. But it's up to her to earn the money she needs to pay rent, put gas in her car and pay her utilities.

She loves college, but she is taking a break this semester to focus on her children.

One of her sons got some failing grades last semester, and her daughter got an F, too. Jones wants to make sure she has the time to help her kids with their schoolwork so she is putting her own on hold.

 

Tamie Sullivan and Lavenia Jones believe their friendship could serve as an example for participants of One to One. Emily Maxwell | WCPO

"She's such a great mom," Sullivan said. "But she also has set the expectation that her kids are going to do well in school and go to college."

"They are," Jones said.

Jones' kids have seen how hard she works in school. She has taken them to Xavier's computer lab so she can finish her papers for class.

"I'm there at 3 a.m., and they'd be asleep," Jones said. "They see this is what hard work looks like. If you want it, this is what you have to do."

And as much as Jones wants it, what she wants more is to give her children the time and attention they need to succeed.

"They are my greatest legacies. The best piece of me was put into them," she said. "When I die, you're gonna say, this lady loved her children."

Now Sullivan and her family are there to love them, too. Jones tells her kids to think of Sullivan's grown sons as uncles and to think of Sullivan as an extra grandmother figure.

Sullivan laughed at the thought, saying she didn't know if she was ready to be a grandma.

But she is more than ready to be part of Jones' life for years to come.

"Honestly, we didn't set out to do this," Sullivan said of her relationship with Jones and her kids. "It was just sort of like shame on me if I don't stay connected with this woman. And a beautiful thing happened."

Time will tell whether One to One can help similarly beautiful things happen 5,000 more times.

More information about the Child Poverty Collaborative is available online.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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