BY HECTOR FLORES
When a child is born in prison, there is a home waiting to raise them in Queens.
And when that mother returns to the world outside prison walls, there is a network of volunteers strung together by the determination of one Catholic nun and private donations waiting to teach her how to build a family.
Hundreds of mothers and their children have become the success stories of two programs based in Western Queens are run by Sister Teresa Fitzgerald called Hour Children and My Mother’s House.
“We got the name ‘Hour Children’ because children whose mothers are in prison are ruled by the hour,” Fitzgerald explained. “Each child spends a certain number of hours, of supervised visits, with their mothers until the hour their mothers are released from jail.”
And through My Mother’s House, women learn to be good mothers and good citizens as they build a healthy life for their children after they have served their time.
A MOTHER’S STORY
Elizabeth Lagares is one of Hour Children’s first success stories.
She was arrested in 1995 for drug dealing. She has since been able to get her life back on track and owes everything to the help of the sisters in the program.
Lagares arrived from Puerto Rico in 1994, one year later she was arrested for drug dealing and sent to Taconic Prison. “I had a problem with the law when I first came to the States,” she said. “I got into the wrong crowd and started selling drugs when I was 20 years old. I had a boyfriend and it was his family who was involved with the drugs. One of the sisters in the jail told me about the Hour House program and I was accepted.”
When Lagares was arrested she was two months pregnant and stayed in prison for about a year with her daughter. Upon her release she was placed in one of houses and lived there for five years.
“When I first got into the program it was very hard to get used to the living arrangement,” she recalled. “But soon I started to get to know the sisters and the other mothers. Now if there’s anything I need, all I need to do is ask them and they will help me out. It’s as if they are my second family because the rest of my family is in Puerto Rico.”
Lagares lived in Hour Children house in Richmond Hill for five years. Today, she is happily married and has an apartment of her own, now on her spare time she helps other mothers with their children.
A SISTER’S LOVE
Sister Teresa Fitzgerald heads the Hour Children Organization which has been helping mothers in prison get back on their feet.
The program helps mothers gain independence by finding them jobs and giving them the skills to raise their own children.
This Friday the organization will hold its annual Hour Children and My Mother’s House Christmas party.
According to Fitzgerald the party is intended as a reunion for mothers and their children who have successfully graduated from the program and are on their own.
“Over 300 mothers and children have left our houses,” Fitzgerald explained. “Mothers come to our party and share their success stories with others.”
Fitzgerald helped develop the program in 1992, and has been involved in the program ever since. Before that she was a Principal of Saint Vincent De Paul in Brooklyn. In 1986, she helped open the first Mother’s House in LIC, which now serves as the official Hour Children’s headquarters.
“At the time we realized that mothers needed a place to reunite with their children until they were able to find a job,” Fitzgerald explained. “There are approximately two different kinds of houses, Hour Children and My Mother’s House. The first house is intended to house children whose mothers are still in prison, while the second house reunites mothers with their child and help them gain independence. Mothers live in the houses, with supervision, until they find a job and an apartment they can afford.”
According to Fitzgerald, there are approximately four houses in total, two Hour Children Houses, one located in Long Island City (LIC) and the other located in Richmond Hill and two My Mother’s Houses, one located in LIC and the other in Astoria.
GOING INTO DEBT FOR A GOOD CAUSE
Despite the fact that the organization is funded solely by private grants and foundations, this October saw the program expand to include four apartment houses in LIC.
“We went into debt for the first time,” she said. “Through generous donations and a loan, we were able to purchase four family apartment houses. We genuinely hope that this will the first of many homes that we purchase for the mothers in our program.”
Mothers who live in the apartments are working and according to Fitzgerald have successfully become part of mainstream society.
Fitzgerald explained that mothers are referred to the program, however the program only admits mothers who are first time offenders.
“If these mothers had families and money they would be placed in rehab, but they don’t. We give them support and a place to stay until they are able to support themselves.” she said. “We invite mothers who are serious about their recovery to be part of the program. Our mothers through counseling have worked very hard to get an education and better jobs. They have done everything to improve themselves and become close with their families. These mothers have become role models to others and this shows that people need support and encouragement to help them get back on their feet.”
For more information on the Hour Children Organization contact Sister Teresa or Ann at 433-4724
The Hour Children Christmas Party will be held on Friday, Dec. 22 from 2 to 7 p.m. at Le Cordon Bleu, 96-01 Jamaica Ave. Woodhaven.
Donations to Hour Children program can be sent to Hour Children, 36-11A 12 St., Long Island City, NY 11106.