THE MANTRA PROJECT
Do you have a mantra? Something you say in your head when life gets derailed or you feel down and things just aren't going your way? I do. My mantra is "I am strong." As a petite, 110 lb. Asian American woman, I never thought of myself as strong growing up. But then I gave birth to twins that weighed 6 pounds each. I did the Ironman at age 41. When I'm racing and I hear someone cheering "You look strong!" I channel that energy and it empowers me. Now I don't need other people to tell me I'm strong because it's my mantra.
My guest writer this week is my friend, Kim Tomassi. She is my soul sister and someone whom I admire for her desire to do good in the world. She writes, "I believe that women are our own best chance. I believe that when we have everything we need, we are morally compelled to hold out our hand to another woman who doesn’t." When she talks about her work with York Street and The Mantra Project, her passion is contagious. Enjoy the story, reach out your hand and please share your mantra with us in the comments below.
THE MANTRA PROJECT
~ Kim Tomassi
"It's come at last", she thought, "the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache.”
― Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
One of the universal traits of motherhood is the desire to protect your children. No matter our circumstances, the primal bond of motherhood compels us to do our best for our kids, and for most of us, it’s easy, though it doesn’t always feel that way. We worry about our parenting – am I supportive enough, am I coddling him too much, am I teaching her to stand up for herself, am I giving them the tools they need to navigate the world? We look to our own upbringing, to our friends, to our parents, to professionals. We give our children structure and stability, nutritious food and homework help, soccer camp and math tutors. We’ve all connected to other women with whom we have nothing in common save our concern for our children.
But there are women with another story. Women whose reality stands at direct opposition to that maternal instinct. When you have three children under 5 and find yourself dialing a friend of a friend at midnight to beg for a floor to sleep on that night, you don’t have the luxury of thinking how to bolster your child’s self esteem. If all your mental energy is spent trying to figure out how you’re going to feed them until Friday, there is no room for academic enrichment. Women who have struggled under the relentless grind of poverty for generations, who have endured unspeakable violence and abandonment and neglect, don’t have the resources that we take for granted. You can’t strive for something you’ve never seen.
For the last five years, I have had the privilege of volunteering at a non profit that transitions women with children from homeless to housed. The York Street Project creates a haven for these mothers, gives them a place to catch their breath. The Nurturing Place, Kenmare High School, and St Josephs Home provide shelter, education, counseling, care and knowledge for their children, and an atmosphere of community and support to help them realize their dreams of a better life for their families. This amazing organization provides protection for these mothers, so that they can provide it for their children – breaking the vicious cycle of poverty.
Through York Street’s partnership with the Visual Arts Center of NJ, I have had the great fortune to work with the extraordinarily talented Joanie Schwarz, a Westfield based photographer whose Mantra Project has been an inspiration to me. Read about her incredible mission to empower women and photograph them.
This summer, Joanie photographed the women of York Street Project with their children. She helped them create a mantra together, something they could use to bolster them and bring them together through their difficulties. The shoot was amazing, and I sat with the women to get their stories. “I left in the middle of the night, because I didn’t want my son to grow up thinking it was ok to put his hands on a woman.” “I am going to community college to be a pediatric nurse, because these kids take in what they see, and then they repeat it. I want to help them.” “I couldn’t stay in my dad’s house, because my sister always had DYFS investigating her. I can’t have my daughter around that.”
And when I saw the images, of these unbelievably strong women with their children, all I saw was light and connection and love. Any one of them could be me.
I believe that women are our own best chance. I believe that when we have everything we need, we are morally compelled to hold out our hand to another woman who doesn’t. All those women want is to do better for their kids, to offer protection. They could be us.
images: Joanie Schwarz Portraiture