Suburban Journal: Say Goodbye to Collom Street

Three years ago, Newtown Square’s Jackie O’Connor met Nicole Austin-Hall, a mother of six from Germantown. It would end up changing both their lives

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.