A City Changed
Thirty years after packing up and moving to California, Vanessa returned to Flint, the city she had called home in her youth.
A lot had changed in those 30 years.
Her initial impression? In Vanessa’s words, “everything just seemed broken.”
What could convince someone to leave sunny California for Michigan’s long, gray winters? For Vanessa, it was her granddaughter Faith.
Faith is one of those kids who exudes more than just energy, she exudes joy. She has a depth to her that you can only attribute to someone who’s been through too much for her age. Even so, I recognize the look on her face when I see her pedaling her bike down the sidewalk: bliss. Freedom. A kid being fully herself. It’s beautiful, especially in a city where a lot of kids don’t know what that feels like.
In her free time, 9-year-old Faith likes building towns out of shoe boxes populated by pipe cleaner people.
Vanessa marvels at her creativity and vision.
“I can give her a ream of paper thinking she’s gonna come out and draw on it, and she’s built a town—I mean, like actually erected a town.”
When weather permits, Vanessa and her granddaughter ride their bikes. Sometimes to appointments, sometimes on errands, and sometimes just for an adventure. On those occasions, their trips will take them far beyond the city limits where Faith can glimpse what life looks like outside of Flint.
Despite the creeping cynicism characteristic of any seasoned Flintstone, Vanessa harbors deep hope for Faith.
“I’m praying that for Faith and other children, that they actually get to have a childhood,” says Vanessa. “That her memories are not vacant lots. It’s important. Because what you do in your childhood actually can help you through those rough spots when you find yourself alone, no family around … It just helps you to keep pushing on.”
Back to School
When Vanessa got custody of Faith, she had two weeks before school started.
“I had to hit the ground running,” she reflects.
In a city of limited choices, she sent her granddaughter to what seemed to be the best option: a charter school.
Already in Faith’s short life, she has been to more schools than most people attend in a lifetime. Vanessa, eager to provide Faith a stable environment, was banking on the school working out.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The gravity of the situation was more than academic. It was about more than test scores or the likelihood of getting into a good college. It was about survival. In a classroom of 50 students, it hardly seemed possible.
Vanessa knew that she had to send her granddaughter somewhere else. Without a vehicle, she hesitated at the thought of trying to send her to a public school in the suburbs. She scraped together what money she could and decided to send Faith to a parochial school.
Childhood in Flint
Faith has already been through a lot in her short life. Sometimes, she doesn’t understand how it’s possible that her granny can wake up morning after morning in such a good mood. For a while, it bred resentment.
Following a pre-adolescent bout of bad behavior this past spring, Vanessa asked Faith to write her a letter explaining the way she had acted. Vanessa read me the letter.
“‘Granny, I treat you the way that I treat you because I feel lonely,’” Vanessa pauses, and looks up through her glasses before continuing. “‘And you’re always happy, and I’m not.’”
Faith isn’t alone. The predicament of today’s youth in Flint pulls on Vanessa’s heartstrings.
“I used to say when I was younger, ‘I wish we could bottle [kids’] energy, their enthusiasm. Now, I wish I could pump some of my enthusiasm into these children.”
When Faith is feeling lonely or unhappy, Vanessa tells her to focus on what she can do to help the people around her, rather than focusing on herself.
“When you feel like you’re so lonely,” Vanessa told her “or so unhappy that you cannot champion yourself … that’s when I help people even more. I go help someone else. And then I realize I don’t have it as bad. Or it helps me to feel better when I can put a smile on somebody else’s face. Then, I can see my worth.”
Fighting for Faith
Someday soon, Vanessa hopes to get back to her passion: stand-up comedy. The premise for her latest routine? God doesn’t trust Flint with water anymore, so he won’t even send us rain. (No slight irony: we had our second driest June ever this summer.) Today, though, she’s focused on the work that needs to be done in her home, her neighborhood, and her city.
That starts with Faith.
At school, Faith excels at math. She used to be strong in reading too but, more recently, she’s been struggling. Her difficulty might be due to the water, it might not be. For Vanessa and many other families in Flint, there’s no clear answer.
On top of everything else—looking for work, tireless volunteerism in her neighborhood, and ceaseless advocacy on Faith’s behalf—Vanessa is struggling to pay for her granddaughter’s school.
Faith is getting a generous scholarship but, even with that money, there’s still $1000 left to pay. Vanessa had to take out a loan to cover the expense.
Today, we’re working to raise money for Faith and other children in Flint who need assistance to afford quality schooling. As part of our campaign, half the money will go to support Faith’s schooling while the other half will go directly to Saint John Vianney School to support their scholarship programs.
For more information, please check out the campaign page.