Patrice, Ali, Tyson & TJ

Austin Family

Patrice has persevered through domestic violence and homelessness to create a stable life for her children.

Providence Moves | Fall 2014 Spotlight | photo gallery | article and photos by Julie Williams Dixon |

“The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” — William Hutchison Murray, explorer

When Patrice Austin and her three young children boarded the train from Philadelphia to Raleigh one morning in February 2013, they were shivering a bit. The kids didn’t have warm coats to keep out the northern air—plus, they were embarking on an adventure.

A casual observer probably saw a young mother with her enthusiastic brood taking a trip south to visit family. After all, there was a sister waiting in Raleigh, and the kids were extremely excited to be out after months of being cooped up. And Austin was happy that day, in a strange sort of way. “The minute I got on that train I felt a huge surge of relief, a huge release. I felt like myself for the first time in months.”

She did what many of us do at the beginning of a journey. She held her cell phone at arm’s length and snapped a selfie. “I looked at that photograph of myself, and I said, ‘Oh, there you are. You do still exist.’ ”

The night before, as she found her courage to flee, she’d taken another photo of herself. She gathered what she could in three large bags, leaving behind the treasured Christmas toys she’d chosen to boost the children’s spirits. When she glanced at the photo she’d just snapped, she saw a face she didn’t recognize—drained, blank.

Patrice took this photo of herself the night she found the courage to flee.

Patrice took this photo of herself the night she decided to leave Philadelphia.

The violence had started more than four years earlier, and Austin had done what many women do when they’re physically and emotionally abused. She’d left him. And then she did the other thing that many abused women do.

She’d gone back.

Over and over.

But this time would be different. She knew it that day on the train, and she was right.

It would be a few weeks until Austin walked through the doors at the Jordan Child & Family Enrichment Center with a Work First voucher to help pay for her childcare.She’d landed a waitressing job soon after getting into town. It didn’t pay nearly as well as the customer service jobs she’d had in the past, but she was limited to employment options within walking distance of the shelter where she and the kids were living.

She had enrolled her 9-year-old son, Ali, in an elementary school with an afterschool program, and she needed care for Tyson, her 3-year-old daughter, and TJ, her 2-year-old son. Her sister, Aviance, had suggested she try the Jordan Center, where her own daughter had attended preschool a decade earlier. But getting in would be a long shot, at best. With a five-star rating and a location near downtown Raleigh, the Jordan Center almost always has a waiting list. Besides that, it was March, and the annual enrollment period for new children was months away in July.

ON THE CASE
Katherine Hutchens Jordan Center Director Katherine Hutchens
Julie Glasgow Associate Director
Julie Glasgow
Rene' Pearce Administrative Coordinator Rene’ Pearce
Debreille Morgan Teacher
Debreille
Morgan
LaThanya Stokes Teacher
LaThanya
Stokes

Austin made the phone call anyway and connected with Administrative Coordinator Rene’ Pearce. “I knew we didn’t have spaces for the two kids in their age groups,” Pearce says. “But something about my conversation with this mom made me know we had to figure something out.”

When Austin first arrived in Raleigh, Aviance had welcomed her and the kids into her home, but it became clear quickly that those living arrangements could not last. “My sister was very willing to have us live with her, but she has four kids, a husband and a nanny,” Austin says. “I knew after just a few nights that we had to find somewhere of our own.”

Aviance told her about InterAct, a United Way agency that provides support and shelter to victims of domestic violence. Austin called and went to visit, and the staff told her that, although it was highly unusual, InterAct did in fact have room for her and three kids. This was one of the first lucky breaks Austin had in her journey to independence. “God just kept putting angels in my path,” she says.

Austin went back to her sister’s house, gathered a few things, and Aviance tearfully drove her and the kids to what would become “home” for the next two months. They had two bunk beds and a few drawers in their room, and Austin set about getting them organized. The kids were excited to live around other children. “We had been so isolated in Philadelphia because my ex did not even want us to leave the house,” Austin says. “We had come there from Las Vegas, and he refused to let us buy warm clothes. The kids did not have winter coats. I was not even permitted to go to the grocery store, and my oldest son was not allowed to go to school. I had been homeschooling him. So by the time we got to Raleigh, my children were just really happy to be around other people.”

At InterAct, Ali, the oldest, was required to join a counseling group with other children who’d been exposed to domestic violence. “I asked him if he understood what those two words meant —domestic violence,” Austin remembers.

And as she explained it to him, the fear he’d hidden for years came streaming out. “He told me there were so many times he was afraid for me and wanted to help me,” she says. “We both cried at finally being able to talk about it.”

In the meantime, Jordan Center Director Katherine Hutchens had figured out a way to enroll Austin’s younger two. It wasn’t ideal, but the plan would get the kids into care and help Austin stay employed: 3-year-old Tyson would go into the 4s classroom, 2-year-old TJ would go into the 3s classroom, and they’d both stay put when the other preschoolers moved up in July.

“We knew,” Hutchens says, “that if Patrice could not find childcare quickly, she would lose her new job.”

What Hutchens didn’t know was that TJ and Tyson were stressed from the upheaval in their lives, and they were going home every night to a room at the domestic violence shelter. Austin had been understandably reluctant to tell that part of their story—until TJ forced her hand with a painful case of separation anxiety. As she let the details spill out, Austin explained why TJ wailed and clung to her at drop-off every day and why Tyson sat by herself in the classroom, silently crying.

With that information, teachers had what they needed to help.

Hutchens gave TJ a photo of his mom to carry around school, and teachers rained down extra attention on both children. Before long, staff noticed more smiles and less fear—and they also took note of Austin’s determination. “It became so clear how dedicated Patrice was to providing the best life possible for her children,” Hutchens says. “It made us all want to do whatever we could to help.”

Austin’s perseverance was paying off, and it indeed seemed that providence was in play. Her children settled down. She kept her job, saved her money and stayed at the shelter for two months. She watched as the other women left, many of them returning to abusive situations.

Still she stayed.

Jordan Center staff let her use the office computer to search for her own apartment and transportation. She eventually found a used car she could afford, and another Jordan Center family donated two child-restraint seats. The days of riding the bus and living in one room were coming to a close.

A promise Austin had made to herself had come to pass.

When Austin had entered the shelter in February, it was exactly seven days before her 31st birthday. She was depressed, anxious, angry and afraid. “I had let the negative voices in my head convince me that no one loved me. If they did, how could I be in the situation I was in? I told myself that I was stupid. I told myself I was a bad mother. I was mad at myself and mad at my family. “Then, my counselor at InterAct helped me remember that no one owed me anything, and that even the people who loved me could not create the home I wanted for myself and my children.”

Austin made a promise to herself that when she left the shelter she would drive away in her own car, to her own place. In April 2013, that’s what she did.

Having wheels of her own allowed Austin to expand her job search and she found a higher-paying position. Things were looking up, and Raleigh started to feel familiar. She even described the Jordan Center as “being like our second home.”

But in December, Austin abruptly stopped bringing Tyson and TJ to class. After a couple of days, Pearce started calling to ask what was going on. “We knew that if the kids missed more than five days in a row that she would be in danger of losing her (Work First) place for them at the center,” Hutchens says.

Austin was just too stuck to pick up the phone and explain, she says. Her car had broken down, and without reliable transportation, she had lost her job. “I felt frozen. It all began to feel overwhelming again. I had to go to food banks to be able to feed the kids. I went to Salvation Army to get them coats. I knew I couldn’t afford to get the car fixed.”

Behind the scenes, Aviance urged Austin to talk to the Jordan Center staff. “Let them know what you need,” she’d urged. “Just let them know what you need.”

When Austin finally talked to Pearce, she got the encouragement she needed to snap back—and to believe this latest obstacle was one she could overcome. “We’ve watched you make something from nothing for your kids,” Pearce told her. “We’ve seen you come too far to let a darn car breakdown stop you now.”

Hutchens was next. “I called her up and said, ‘Just tell us how much it’s going to cost to fix the car.’ ”

Within hours, an email went out to Jordan Center families and Methodist Home for Children staff, and the contributions that streamed in far exceeded the $800 needed by the mechanic. The car got fixed. The children returned to class. Austin returned to the workforce, scoring a better job. When Christmas came around a few weeks later, and money was tight, Austin’s Jordan Center network provided once again. “We take care of our families,” Pearce says, remembering Austin’s astonished look as they filled her car with gifts and presented each kid with a gift card to buy clothes and toys.

The memories of having to walk away from all those Christmas gifts the year before in Philadelphia lost some of their hold on Austin, and she felt surrounded by her new family.

August 2014 saw big transitions for Austin’s children. Tyson began kindergarten at the same elementary school where her brother Ali had gone, while Ali moved up to middle school. At the Jordan Center, TJ began his transition into the 4-year-old classroom. There were tears as he left his teacher, Debreille Morgan, with whom he’d formed a special bond. Morgan sometimes took TJ home with her after class, and she said that wouldn’t change just because he had a new teacher.

Austin continues to juggle the demands of parenting three young children, all at different schools, and holding down a full-time job—while pursuing a degree online. She’s working toward a bachelor’s degree in health and wellness.

“I want to be able to help other women who are going through what I’ve been through,” she says. “God put people to help me all along my path, and I want to be able to do the same for somebody else.”