COLLOM STREET IS ONLY a 40-minute drive from Newtown Square. But as Jackie O’Connor pulled onto the Germantown block, the neighborhood seemed foreign, a place she never would have found without MapQuest. The street was lined with rowhomes, some of them abandoned, their faces crumbling. As she parked her Toyota Sequoia in front of 48 East Collom, the baseball cap and casual clothes incapable of hiding her white skin and the diamond on her left hand, people watched from their front stoops, their black faces holding the same question: Why are you here?
Jackie looked over at her 15-year-old son, Grayson, and for the first time felt nervous.
GET HER NUMBER.
Jackie stared at the back of Nicole Austin-Hall’s head, the din of the conference swirling around her, three words whispering across her mind. A consultant for Weekly Reader, Jackie was working a booth at an anti-violence conference in University City on November 5, 2005, running focus groups for a new classroom magazine. “Surely these can’t be all yours?” she’d asked the young black woman with the kind, bright face who’d walked up to her booth, nine children surrounding her.
In the time it took the kids to fill out raffle cards, Jackie learned that only six belonged to the woman. The other three she had taken in, was looking after for her sister-in-law. As they turned to leave, Jackie felt a strange impulse to call to her.
Get her number. Three little words.
“I think I’d like to stay in touch with you,” Jackie said, almost before she realized she’d spoken. “I think there might be some way I can help you.”
Nicole stared at her, hesitant for only a second. And then she rattled off her 10-digit number, almost certain this would be the last time she ever saw the pretty woman with a sweep of dark hair.
THE LINE RANG BUSY. Jackie tried off and on for weeks, but each time, her ear filled with the same grating tone. Months passed. A year. The young woman Jackie couldn’t forget seemed lost. And then, in December of 2006, Jackie called one more time.
Nicole picked up, and Jackie learned that since the conference, she’d given birth to a boy, Ian-Micah, carrying her total number of children to seven — all under the age of 12. Nicole, then 30 years old, was married, but her husband worked long hours as a parking attendant in Center City, and he was absent from the house often. Almost every night at 1 a.m., Nicole would bundle up her new baby and two- year-old Zachary and drive to Wayne Junction in Germantown to pick him up. Nicole, who’d been at the conference as a working volunteer for AmeriCorps’ EducationWorks, only earned $334 every two weeks, after taxes.
“I just kept thinking to myself: ‘How are they surviving?’” says Jackie. As the women talked, Jackie gently began to ask questions. So where do the kids sleep? What kind of diapers do they wear? Do you have a TV? She learned that the family was on food stamps, that Zachary had a feeding tube, and that each night Nicole would attach a bag of nutrients to his belly before tucking him against her body, holding him close as she prayed for his frail limbs to grow. She learned four of the children had chronic asthma and that the four-year-old twins, Jeremiah and Elijah, had epilepsy. The family was at CHOP so often that the doctors knew them by name — visits so frequent and draining that this mother of seven was forced to drop out of culinary classes. Jackie also learned that Nicole had a deep-rooted faith in God and, despite her troubles, cooked dinner for all of her family and friends once a month, packing her already-cramped house to the brim.
Finally, after speaking with Nicole a few times over the phone, Jackie asked: “Would it be okay if I came to visit you?”
Nicole agreed, then added: “Don’t be scared by the neighborhood. I feed everybody, so you won’t get shot.”