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.”
NICOLE GREW UP IN South Philly, spending her teen years in clubs and staying out late. But when she felt the first flutter of life within her womb at age 19, she settled down, trading the clubs for church, building her life around God and a quickly expanding family. Nicole and her husband moved to Collom Street in April of 2002, hoping the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s 1,200-square-foot house would be a home for them and their children. But Nicole soon realized that no matter what color she painted the walls, they were still rampant with mice, the scratch of their running feet enough to keep her awake at night. One night, as Nicole slept with Zachary tucked against her, she awoke to something wet on her skin. A rat had jumped into the bed and eaten through the feeding tube.
Then there was the violence — the heated arguments that took place right outside the front door, the guns flashing, shells littering the sidewalk. At the first sound of gunshots, Nicole and the kids would run up to the third floor, cowering in the bedroom farthest from the street. As Nicole looked at her children’s faces, waiting for the police who might never come, she would pray.
It got so bad that late at night, when it was finally quiet, Nicole would walk down the center of Collom Street drizzling holy oil across the cracked pavement, her lips forming the same prayer over and over: God, protect our block. Protect every household. Allow the chaos and confusion to stop.
At the end of the street, she would slowly pour oil across the white lines of the crosswalk, dividing the block from the rest of Germantown. A message to evil: Stay away. And then she would walk slowly back through the shadows, praying in tongues.
"IT WAS MUCH WORSE than I expected,” says Jackie, recalling the December day when she first saw Nicole’s house. “There were no curtains on windows, closets for clothing, suitable beds or bedding. Their backyard was a trash dump.”
Jackie and her son didn’t stay long, leaving soon after unpacking all they’d brought with them — clothes, video games, items for the baby. The overlapping of worlds was draining for everyone, and they said their goodbyes. As they hugged at the door, Nicole whispered in Jackie’s ear that things weren’t going well with her husband. Jackie grasped Nicole’s hand as tears filled their eyes, the differences of race and wealth melting away. Finally, she turned to go.
It’s going to snow.
“Do your kids have snow boots?” Jackie asked. Looking back, she says this moment was the first time she realized God was at work. Nicole shook her head, confirming what Jackie already knew. Jackie dug into her pockets for whatever cash she could find. “Do me a favor,” she said, pressing the crumpled bills into Nicole’s hand. “Go right now. Put the kids in the car and go to Payless. There’s a sale. It’s going to snow.”
Then she left, and Nicole watched her go, this stranger who was becoming a friend, who had tucked $120 into her palm. She swallowed her pride, bundled the kids into the car, and drove to the Payless off Germantown Avenue.
That night, Nicole scrubbed her kitchen counters and wiped down the walls of her house, unable to sleep. Around 2 a.m., she peeked out the window. Tiny flurries were drifting down from the dark night sky.
And when Jackie sat up in bed the next morning, 20 miles away, a shiver ran down her spine. The trees were dusted with white, with black limbs peeking through.
Over the next few weeks, Jackie learned that Nicole was ready to go back to school. The daughter of a single mom, Jackie grew up in a small apartment in Northeast Philly. She saw education as Nicole’s one shot at changing her life. Her own hard work had led to a full academic scholarship to Gwynedd Mercy Academy and, eventually, college and a 20-year publishing career. But after her first marriage failed, she was left a single mom, raising her son alone. It wasn’t until she remarried in 2002 that life eased up for her. If Nicole went to school somewhere on the Main Line, Jackie told her, she could help her even more.
Nicole’s mind wandered to the application to Eastern University that she’d been holding onto for more than a year. She wanted to become a minister, and her old pastor had written her a recommendation for the private Christian university in St. Davids. But Nicole had always thought of that as a far-off place. How would she get there? And besides, what school would accept a black mother of seven with only her GED and a few culinary classes on her résumé?
THE NEXT TIME JACKIE and Nicole met face-to-face, it was February, on a date for pizza at the Genuardi’s in Wayne. Nicole mentioned Eastern, and Jackie jumped on it, excited the school was so close by: “I told her if she got in, I would work on getting her out of Collom Street and up here.” But when they said their goodbyes, the exchange felt tense, clumsy. “As I was driving away,” Jackie remembers, “I was like, ‘All right, God, what do I do now?’”
You’ve done enough, the voice of reason told her. She’s fine, and she doesn’t want you in her business. She appreciates the donations, but now it’s time for you to go.
And Jackie had good reason to turn away, to wave goodbye to the little boys in Nicole’s car. “I was scared,” she recalls. “I didn’t know how much I could invest in this family. There were so many needs, so many health issues, such poverty.” So she went about her life on the Main Line. But she couldn’t keep from thinking: What are the kids doing? Are they warm? Are they sick? How did Nicole make out last night when she picked up her husband at one o’clock?
Jackie’s phone rang in May 2007. Nicole had been accepted to Eastern. When Jackie hung up, she was shaking. I have to move them here. But I have no idea how.
She pushed ahead, regardless of the improbability of relocating an entire black inner-city family to white Main Line suburbia. “My husband was supportive, but he thought I was crazy,” she recalls. “The area we live in is very affluent. But I told Nicole I would start looking for a house.”
What Nicole didn’t tell Jackie was that her husband had packed his bags and left the same week she learned of her acceptance at Eastern. Despite her devastation, at the end of August, Nicole began attending class. After her car broke down in October, she started riding the R5 from Wayne Junction in Germantown to St. Davids, and walking the rest of the way to her college classes. Many days, she brought her youngest children with her. Though she soon realized her GED hadn’t prepared her for the intensity of her theology courses, Nicole pressed on. “How could I ever tell my kids to do it if I hadn’t done it?” she says resolutely. “Failure was not an option.”
At the end of the day, Nicole would stand on a concrete platform waiting for the R5, her thoughts drifting to the pretty white house with green trim she had seen just behind the school. The house she walked by three times a week on the two-mile loop for her biokinetics class. The house she was praying for.
THEY’RE ONLY HELPING YOU because you’re the token black girl.
You’re a tax write-off.
You think you’re like the Jeffersons, movin’ on up.
When Nicole’s friends and family heard that a white woman was trying to get her to leave the city, they told her she was crazy, that she was being used. How could she trust this woman? How would she ever pay all of her bills?
But Jackie had been busy talking to her friends, and one, Joe Corcoran, had promised to fund Nicole’s first year’s rent. “What about year two?” Nicole asked, when she realized her prayers were dangerously close to being answered.
Jackie looked at her, their eyes locking. “I don’t know,” she told her honestly. “But I ’m not ditching you. I’m here.”
After weeks of calls and false leads, Jackie heard about a house for rent — white with green trim, right behind Nicole’s school.
ON DECEMBER 14, 2007, nearly two years after she first met Nicole, Jackie drove back to Collom Street. “There are four days I will always remember,” says Jackie, her voice breaking for the first time. “The day I had Grayson, the day I married Jerry, the day I had Kelly, and the day I moved Nicole.” They took what was salvageable, then closed the door on a life worth leaving behind.
“When the children saw the new house, they started screaming,” says Jackie, who’d put together a profile of Nicole and the children as soon as they’d signed the lease, e-mailing it to everyone she knew and asking them to get involved. She’d spent the past two weeks calling anyone who would listen, asking for help furnishing the place — Sleepy’s for mattresses, Comcast for cable, phone and Internet, friends and family to help foot the bill for the many items on the registry she’d set up at JCPenney. “It was just like a scene from Extreme Makeover. They ran inside, saying over and over again, ‘Thank you, Miss Jackie!’” That night, for the first time, Nicole fell asleep knowing her children were safe.
Though the kids quickly made friends, it wasn’t as easy for Nicole. “For the first couple months, I couldn’t relate,” she admits. “I really felt like I was in the middle of nowhere.” And then she took the children to a nearby park. At the first sign of the Halls, white families disappeared like ghosts. The afternoon of Isaiah’s first Little League game, Nicole broke down, telling Jackie what had happened.
“Nicole, do you want to go back?” Jackie asked, even though she knew it would be unbearable to help this woman who had become a sister return to Germantown. “If you want to go back, I’ll help you.”
But as Nicole looked at her son, waving to her from the field, drenched in sunlight, she knew going back was impossible.
For every look or questioning glance the Halls receive, there have been a hundred welcoming embraces. Nearly nine months later, Nicole is bringing her energy, prayers and “black-people food” to her quiet lane in Wayne, cooking for her neighbors regularly. Aijée, 14, baby-sits for the moms. Isaiah, eight, who had never before picked up a bat, is excelling in sports. Alex, 11, reads constantly. “When I lived on Collom Street, my kids didn’t have dreams,” says Nicole. “We moved out here, and they are talking about college, because all of their friends are talking about college.”
Though this transplanted Germantown family is starting to take root on the Main Line, there are shadows. The rent is only paid for one year, and Jackie needs a plan for year two. Nicole’s ’98 Chevy Venture minivan has 238,000 miles on it, and it won’t be long before she needs a new car. The prices at the local Acme are shockingly high for a family still on welfare, so Nicole drives to her old neighborhood to shop. Many of Nicole’s friends say it’s too far to come visit. But Nicole knows better, knows she’s now a woman living in the in-between — not quite from the ’hood, and obviously not from the Main Line.
In Jackie, Nicole has found a friend, a sister, a life coach and financial planner. She’s there for whatever comes up, from birthday celebrations to picking college courses. If the dryer stops working or Nicole’s financial aid comes up short, Jackie is on the phone, tirelessly seeking new ways to fill the gap, from orchestrating scholarships to planning fund-raisers. “Rent alone is $1,700 a month,” says Jackie. “I had to put almost $500 in oil in her tank today, and that came from one donor.”
The network of support Jackie has woven around the family is strong and intricate, made up of a hundred people. Friends cart the children to Little League and summer camp, and during the school year, 12 Main Line women take turns dropping off dinner three times a week, so Nicole has time to spend with the kids before starting on homework. The rigor of Eastern is draining, and as her first year came to a close, Nicole was foundering, struggling with almost all her courses. Seven children leave little time for studying, and a faulty education can’t be erased in mere months. But neither woman is giving up, fed by their friendship and the faith that God is overseeing it all. Nicole has decided to pursue an accelerated degree, to afford her greater flexibility and prep her for a career in nonprofits, and Jackie is hopeful the schoolwork will go better this year. Then again, perhaps Eastern was just a catalyst for something more, something bigger than graduating with honors.
Jackie now dreams of starting My Sister’s House, a nonprofit that would help families like Nicole’s. She’s hesitant, though — worried that a project so large would take her away from the family she’s already made a promise to. “I really wanted to help this one family have a chance,” she says, in the midst of planning a September fund-raiser for next year’s rent. “I know Nicole will pay it forward. I know her kids will pay it forward.”
“HEY, NICOLE! WHERE ARE you going?” one of the Hall family’s new neighbors shouts as Nicole walks toward her car.
“To the ’hood!” Nicole booms back, laughing.
“The ’hood?” The neighbor looks confused. “What is ‘the ’hood’? Where does it exist, exactly?”
As Nicole stands in front of what used to be her house 45 minutes later, the hot afternoon sun seems strangely dull and muted compared to the blinding Technicolor of the Main Line. The front door is nailed shut; the windows are sealed. She walks around back, weaving her way through what was once her backyard. Water-soaked mattresses and fast-food wrappers litter the ground. She leans into the kitchen window, cupping her hands around her eyes. The remnants of her life — an old broom propped against the stove, a bottle of cleaner on the counter, left behind in the rush to leave — look hazy and brown through the dirty glass. “This was our house,” she says quietly, tilting her head back to look at the third floor, where she hid with the kids when gunshots split the air. “Do you see it?”
Before heading back, Nicole stops at the house of a friend, another single mom going back to school to better the lives of her children. A tree fell onto the roof in a storm; it pitches against the porch. The only furniture is a dining room table, with an old chandelier above it — a strange sight when windows are covered in plastic and paint peels in strips from the walls. Most disturbing are the bedrooms: Though they’re tidy, with stuffed animals propped against pillows, there are gaping holes in the ceilings, and watermarks where rain last kissed the plaster. “She wants to start a daycare,” Nicole says. “Don’t help me and my family. We’ve already been helped. Help them.”