Helen Finner remembers the autumn day two years ago when she was strolling outside the Ida B. Wells housing project, where she lives. A teenage mother was walking toward her. “One baby in her arms, one baby in the stroller, and one baby dragging behind. I saw the frustration in her face. She was cussing the baby walking behind her. And I said, ‘Sweetheart, don’t do that.’ And she said, ‘I’m tired. I’m just tired.’ I told her, ‘You should have thought about that before you decided to have these babies. Now they’re here, and you have to take care of them.'”
Finner is sitting in the office of Mama Said, the program she designed after her encounter with the teenager to link experienced mothers with young ones in need of parenting skills. The office is inside the project, at 37th and Vincennes. Outside a handful of children run around; their mothers, barely out of childhood themselves, stroll aimlessly by.
Someone has dropped off a carton of Pampers, and Finner says some of the local girls might stop by later for a free box. If they pop in to see her, they’ll probably get some of her homespun advice.
“You can’t baby these girls,” says the 60-year-old Finner, the mother of six and grandmother of four. “You have to tell them just like you see it.” The lecture she repeats practically every day is the same one she gave the teenage mother two years ago. “I told that girl, ‘None of these babies asked to come here, and you’re just 17 years old. You should be enjoying high school, having friends, going roller skating or to the show with your friends. You can’t do that now because you don’t have anybody to keep your kids. Don’t dog them because you didn’t have anybody dog you.'”
Finner has been a resident of Ida B. Wells for the past 25 years and is president of its advisory board. After she had the idea for Mama Said, she combed the project for women who would agree to spend time with the young girls Finner knew were desperate for advice and someone to just listen. “These girls didn’t have anybody who seemed to care, and that’s what they needed.”
Now these young mothers can sign up for homemaking classes from the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, the Board of Health sends volunteers to talk about postnatal care, and the Chicago Housing Authority offers workshops on how to get a job. Six months ago Lynell Hemphill, special manager of resident services and programs for the CHA, approached Finner with the idea of spreading the program to other CHA properties.
Seventeen girls now stop by regularly for advice, and Finner is always trying to lure more into her office. She has a list of mothers ready to answer their questions, though she still goes door to door to find more. Vernon Jarrett recently donated some books to start a library. Bags of clothes, extra food, and diapers regularly show up on Finner’s doorstep.
“I see all over the city of Chicago–not just in my housing development–the need for someone to step out and help these young mothers,” she says. “Young girls today become mothers at 12 years of age. At that age they’re not ready for motherhood. They think once they dress their baby up, it’s a doll. But this doll has to be fed and washed. And that’s the reason why there is so much child abuse. Because there’s no one to teach that mother. The mother is young, the grandmother is young, the great-grandmother is young–three generations of mothers not able to accept motherhood.”
A widow at an early age, Finner says she wasn’t eligible for social security when her husband died and had to rely on public aid to raise her family. “I know the frustrations that these girls are going through, but I tell them, only the strong survive. I was a survivor. All of my kids are grown now, and I’m proud of every last one of them. If I could do it, these girls can do it.”
The young mothers stop by Finner’s apartment to chat when she isn’t in her office. “I show them how to do their food stamps. I tell them, “The first thing you do when you get your public-aid check, before you leave the currency exchange, make you out a money order and pay your rent. If you got insurance, pay your insurance. If you’re fortunate enough to have a phone, pay your bills. Then what is left, put it on you and your children’s backs. With your food stamps, buy your food. That way you don’t have to look back and beg nobody, because you have become independent.
“Every day they come to me and show me their grocery list and receipts. They’re proud that somebody took the time to help them. Most of these young mothers, they get their public-aid check, cash it, and there’s a boyfriend standing outside with curls in his hair better than mine, all slicked up. As soon as that young girl walks out the door, he takes the money, goes on about his business, and she don’t see him no more except maybe in two weeks.”
Finner says she’d stop them if she could. “But you can’t. You have to let that girl do it. But I can show them a better way of living. I got some girls who woke up to that situation. They come by now with kids nice and clean–they’re clean, they’re eating well. I tell them, ‘It’s getting cold now. Buy your kids some warm clothes. If you can’t afford new ones, go to the thrift stores.’ I dressed my kids out of thrift stores. They went to school clean every day.”
Finner also wants to get as many young mothers as she can back to school. “Some of them have maybe two years to finish high school. I say, ‘If you go back to high school and finish, then you can go to college at night. You can do something with your life.'”
She peers out the window to see if anybody might be coming. “Right now, this program is a lot of hard work,” she admits. “But I love hard work. If I save only 20 young mothers, turn their lives around, then what I’m doing is not in vain. And by saving these young mothers, I’ll be saving their babies from child abuse. I just can’t sit back and do nothing, and that’s what I tell the other women here: ‘You have to help.'”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.