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

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.”

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.”