BY JON CRONIN
Over the past 25 years, Hour Children, a nonprofit that aids formerly incarcerated women with children trying to get back on their feet, has been quietly changing lives and broadening its scope throughout Queens.
The group began in Long Island City at a house on 12th Street that Hour Children still rents from St. Rita’s Roman Catholic Church.
“It’s still a convent,” said the non-profit’s founder and executive director Sister Tesa Fitzgerald, who added that there are still two nuns living in the house, which is home to 13 families in the Working Women Reentry Program.
Hour Children took its name from the idea of the three precious hours in the life of a child with an incarcerated mother— the last hour they have together before jail, the hour allowed during visits and the first hour of reunion following time served.
The group not only provides a clean and peaceful atmosphere at its eight locations, which feature temporary and permanent housing in Queens, but also promotes a culture of support among women who commit to leading a new life.
The nonprofit has training facilities for its program with onsite social workers, mentors for children and case managers who work one on one with women in the program.
The program is split up into four phases—employment assessment and skill development, which prepares the women for job acquisition; interning; search and acquisition of a job with a livable wage; and job retention.
The group’s program is strict, but it boasts a minuscule 3 percent recidivism rate for those who participate.
“I had a girl in my office who I told wasn’t ready,” Fitzgerald said. “She was sitting in my office and I told her, ‘You’re not ready to do the hard work.’ Some women come back.”
In order to reach a broad spectrum of women, Fitzgerald is hoping to retain on site the services of at least three social workers with immigration rights knowledge. When asked if the request of immigration status information had increased under President Donald Trump’s administration, she let out a hearty laugh.
On one of the first warm spring days of the year, Fitzgerald, a former Brooklyn Diocese teacher and administrator, walked from the charity’s pantry on 12th Street through the first house, which is dubbed “my mother’s house.”
She explained that when children come to live at the house, Fitzgerald doesn’t want them to say that they live in a communal home.
“They could just say, ‘I live at my mother’s house,’” she said.
For the past 31 years, Fitzgerald has been living in a communal home in Astoria that Hour Children utilizes. Outside, there is a playground for children. Inside, the home is cozy and spotless. On a recent day, a gaggle of giggling children were planting herbs, peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers in raised beds at a spot on 11th Street. Each flashed a thousand-watt smile and shouted in unison, “Hello, Sister Tesa!”
Fitzgerald pointed out that items grown in the garden beds and at a hydroponic garden on 12th Street would be distributed throughout the pantry, to which a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) also donates overstock in the warmer months.
In the past few weeks, Fitzgerald has been honored by two organizations for her charitable work over the past three decades. On St. Patrick’s Day, she was inducted into Irish America magazine’s hall of fame in Ireland and presented with the honor in Manhattan.
She also recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the Allstate Atlantic Renewal Award, which presented Hour Children with a $20,000 prize. Fitzgerald said that only five out of approximately 500 nominees were chosen to receive the award, which was sponsored by Atlantic magazine and Allstate Insurance, and rewards those who embark on “grassroots solutions” at the local level.
Three years ago, Fitzgerald won the prestigious Opus Prize, which— according to the Opus Prize Foundation—rewards those who “champion faith-filled change,” are “successfully transforming lives” and can “benefit from the monetary award and recognition.” Hour Children received $1 million for winning the prize.
The money was specifically allocated to housing, which is another project that Fitzgerald hopes to get off the ground soon, along with Hour Children’s new education center, on behalf of which she has applied to the Queens Borough president’s office for $2.5 million.
Fitzgerald said that she was upset by the recent death of former Borough President Helen Marshall, who would often visit Rikers Island with gifts. Hour Children’s participants are often introduced to the group through its advocacy program at Rikers. Fitzgerald noted that Marshall’s son recently called her and said that his mother wanted her entire wardrobe donated to the three thrift stores that Hour Children operates.
Kellie Phelan, who completed the Hour Children program 10 years ago, has been the program coordinator for Hour Children’s Hour Friend in Deed Mentoring Program and Hour Teen Scene Program since 2009. The mentoring program works with adults or children throughout the five boroughs who have an incarcerated parent.
“I truly believe [Hour Children] is a big reason why I am still standing,” said Phelan, whose daughter was only two weeks old when they entered the program together. “I have taken advantage of every program, whether it was for me or my daughter.”
Phelan and her 9-year-old daughter live in Hour Children’s 12th Street building, where she also works. She said that the women who take advantage of the programs offered by Hour Children are the ones who stay out of trouble.
“Had I gone back 10 years ago, I’d be dead today,” she said. “No ifs, ands or buts about it. Since I walked through the doors of Hour Children, I have never thought about leaving.”
Phelan said that she is not a 12-step-program type of person.
“I would have fallen out of it,” she said. “When I came to Hour Children, it was a community. I looked up to the women that came before me. If they could do it, so could I.”
She said that the program was a success for her not only because Fitzgerald and other Hour Children coordinators listened to her.
“[They] were finally someone who I listened to,” she said.