Article written by Lisa Lerner
The day Gerri Price walked up the four flights of stairs to her new apartment in the Frances Residence, she had one thought on her mind: “This is a whole lot of stairs!” After she made it up and in, she set her bags down and looked around. Her next thought was: “This place is great, but I’m not wasting any time.”
An uncertain future
When Gerri, then 25, moved into CHiPS, she was seven months pregnant, out of work, and not at all sure what the future would bring. She had chosen the Frances Residence over other shelters because she felt CHiPS offered the stability and comfort she so desperately needed. She knew she would get a whole year to figure out her life, and while she appreciated this luxury, she never took it for granted.
Her time at CHIPS was a nonstop flurry of action. Everything she did was toward the same end result: obtaining employment and stable housing for herself and her son. “I was motivated by fear!” she cracks. “But truly, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to provide for my son. That thought was always in my head, and I did my best to stay out of trouble.”
Help and support from the CHiPS staff
Gerri credits CHiPS’ caring staff with keeping her on track. The Residence Coordinator, Miss Anne, was always around to help the girls be resourceful. “She talks to you like you’re her own daughter and is 100% real with you,” Gerri explains. “She was always teaching me something, telling me how to apply myself, how to prepare for an interview. She told me about an exam I could take to get a 911 operator job. I didn’t even know there was a job like that! But I took that exam and I passed. I made sure to utilize all the information that was given to me.”
Gerri also reminisces about Louise and Nadja, two social workers from Denmark who worked at CHiPS for seven months. “They were very sweet,” Gerri remembers, “They were like big sisters to us. They cared about our issues and even the simple things they did with us, like watching a movie, that meant a lot to us. One time they took us to the zoo! My son was two months old and we had such a great time. It was so good to get out after having my baby.” Gerri pauses, and when she speaks again, she is wistful. “I remember being under so much stress on my birthday. My mom had passed away and I was always very sad on holidays, but everyone did a lot on my birthday. They had this whole big pizza feast for me. It was really like having a family at CHiPS.”
“Of course, I didn’t like not being able to have any outside company, and having such an early curfew, but I knew better,” Gerri laughs. Her voice grows serious again when she talks about Denise Scaravella, the executive director at CHiPS. “You’re not gonna find anybody like Miss Denise. Believe her when she talks. And she doesn’t just talk! She means what she says. She gave me a lot of advice whether I liked it or not. She doesn’t sugarcoat it, either. But everything she does, she does from her heart.” Even today, Gerri continues to be inspired by Denise. “I’m still watching and learning from her.”
Words of wisdom
Gerri has some advice of her own to give the other young mothers at CHiPS. “Always remember: You are better than your circumstances. Stay focused and treat CHiPS as though it was going to close down tomorrow. Don’t make excuses. If you think you have a whole year, think again. Time flies! Don’t wait until you have your baby to find a job or go back to school. Do not wait! I’ve been on that path, and it’s not a cute sight.”
Perhaps it was that “cute sight” that also reminded Gerri to keep focused on practical matters. “I applied for an apartment in Maryland the minute I arrived at CHiPS because I knew there was a long waiting list,” Gerri remembers. “I chose Maryland because I’d lived there before and knew quite a few people. But I knew I had to be on top of everything. Every chance I got, I sent the apartment people papers and forms and any new piece of information I got. The day I gave birth, I remember getting a letter saying I was still on the waiting list and I had to send them more information. And I made it my business to do it!”
Gerri pauses for a moment to check on her baby, Prince, now 17 months. “I was very persistent! I made sure they knew I wanted that apartment.” Gerri’s voice rises excitedly as she remembers the day she got the news that her efforts had paid off. “I begged Miss Denise to let me go away for the weekend to check on the apartment and make sure it was real. And also to make sure I had a job. I left on a Thursday night and when I got back to CHiPS on Sunday night, I started packing! Four days later, I moved out.”
Gerri was in and out of CHIPS in just eight months.
A new life
In Maryland, while she waited for her new apartment to be painted, Gerri stayed with her best friend for about a week. She began working in a freezer warehouse, but that job was through a temporary agency and she was soon laid off. That didn’t stop her. When she found out about another food service job, she called the manager every Tuesday. “I was blowing that woman’s phone up for two months straight! I was hounding this lady and one day she said to me ‘you don’t let go, do you?’ I got the job.”
Currently, Gerri has two jobs, but her plans for the fall include going back to school. She wants to get both a business entrepreneurship certificate and an early childhood education certificate. “I want to direct after-school programs. Music and literature programs for kids. After I get my certificates, I want to get a business loan, and I’m already talking to people out here about it.” Gerri is also looking forward to volunteering at a local after-school program once a week to get more hands-on training.
Even though Gerri is focused on career, her greatest joy and motivation is her sweet, lively son, Prince. “He brings a lot of joy to my life. I don’t ever want him to be on the streets. I already started a college fund and life insurance for him. He has his own bank account and everything. Any little change I get, I put it in his account.” As if on cue, Prince chortles, and Gerri joins in. “I think my son will be successful in a lot of things.” Her voice is warm with maternal pride. “And I hope when he grows up, he chooses to be with someone who loves him. No one will love him as much as me, of course!” Gerri giggles, cuddling him close. When she speaks again, she’s all business. “I want my son to have a way better life than me. I don’t want him to have to go through any of this.”
At the end of each day, Gerri feels that her life in Maryland is a real blessing. “Life has been rocky for me, and I don’t take anything for granted. Sometimes I think about the time I wasted doing foolish things, but I’m just grateful for everything I have right now.”