By Maneesha Julakanti, Baylor University 2017

“Don’t ever leave me. Don’t you ever leave me!” she cried, her little body clinging to my legs. Since our fated encounter a half hour ago – my soothing shrieks of “MOMMY!!!!” with a breathy lullaby – she had grown quite attached to me. Separation anxiety in most two-year olds lasts two weeks. Hers lasted two months. She moved from the homeless shelter and from PACT by the time I had completed my summer internship – the minimum amount of time needed to establish relationships and have them stripped away.

At the nursery, there were children who would never let go of my hand. There were two year olds yet to form words and infants with fetal alcohol syndrome. Yet, every single one of these twenty four kids showed improvement by the time I left the nursery. Indubitably, this was the magic of PACT Therapeutic Nursery.

When I first arrived in Baltimore early July of 2015, I trembled with anticipation of how it all was going to work. How could anybody combat poverty, battle homelessness? How could help last when individuals left treatment at the end of the day to face more challenging conditions at night? In my time that summer, I realized that a little goes a long way.

PACT draws families together step by step. With Family Traditions Breakfast, Parent-Child Play therapy, and Mindfulness sessions each Thursday, the staff introduced simple concepts that promoted parent-child attachment. Be aware of your thoughts and emotions. Your child is a curious explorer. You are your child’s home base. By allowing children to connect with their parents, both children and parents enjoyed better physical and emotional health, translating into their performances of life’s daily tasks. In my time there, I introduced GED programs to several parents, saw others move to transitional housing, and watched as their children ventured beyond their safety nets and combated new challenges. It was the little things that created this bridge: offering the parents coffee, speaking to them about their problems and their children, offering a safe haven for mothers and children alike. When PACT relocated to West Baltimore, not a single parent there wanted to leave the nursery.

Throughout the summer, PACT Therapeutic Nursery prepared to leave East Baltimore to combine with Sarah’s Hope Homeless Shelter. The new benefits included providing in-house daycare to residents, a network of social workers and health care workers associated with the shelter, and connecting with the community most shaken by the Baltimore riots. This was the next step in offering homeless families integrated healthcare. Through PACT’s move, I came across another side of Baltimore. While our drive to work was still marked by the contradictory combination of foreclosed buildings and homelessness, these and related conditions seemed more pronounced in the West. The stairwell in Sarah’s Hope had been broken by the riots. The shelter was now guarded by the police station across the street. “Remember Freddie Gray” graffiti and murals were scattered across the buildings. It reminded me that my perception of safety differed by my acquaintance with the surroundings, rather than by facts of any threat. I expected that families from the neighborhood perceived their surroundings to be far more acceptable. Ultimately, PACT moved into the nursery piece-by-piece. Since legislation would not permit either nursery to remain unfurnished, the new facilities were equipped before the required items and children were moved in. When we finished, the nursery sparkled. Even in its new setting, PACT offered a stark contrast to its surrounding environment, both physically and also in the assistance it offered the homeless.

PACT is orderly and well-appointed compared to the city of Baltimore. Fire trucks blaze across the city at any given moment of the day, two at a time, three at a time, never seeming to stop as they plough through traffic. As a marker, fire hydrants perpetually spilled water over the streets on our daily drive to work. Yet for all the money the city had to spare on fire trucks, the quality of education is reportedly as empty as some of the potholes littering the roadways. Gas stations are covered in bullet proof glass; all goods enclosed within their protection save for the dozens of lottery tickets lining the glass at half a dollar each. Grocery carts are confined to the stores with electronic locks and physical barriers, while the homeless sleep in the streets without even a grocery bag to hold their belongings. Historic lines of segregation separate gleaming apartments from broken semblances of housing; the last fifty years failing to erase old history. Overall, inadequate housing, education, and police and fire protection present a constant challenge to the health of families that find order and care at PACT. Furthermore, these same families face difficult funding prospects as they improve with PACT’s assistance. Should they reach a certain income level or pass an arbitrary poverty line, their government assistance is depleted all at once, rather than in pieces. For all the lives government assistance saves, its steep cutoff counters PACT’s cause.

Yet, despite the challenge of this environment to the health of the families with whom I worked, I came to admire the potential of my new city. From its origin as a port town to its role in the war of 1812, traces of Baltimore’s heyday can be found beneath the traces of modern architecture and the deterioration that threatens the city. The lingering sense of community grounded in a rich history seemed to state “Time changes everything. This city can rise again.”

From my time at PACT and in Baltimore, I believe that successful healthcare for populations facing disease and poverty demands a holistic approach. Patients must be equipped with better living conditions to prevent relapse. Additionally, entire families must be nurtured emotionally to support vulnerable children. Health extends beyond the hospital; it requires community support to persist among homelessness and disabled. While the greater city of Baltimore awaits such a restoration, PACT’s movement to address communities by supporting individuals is beginning to spur on that grander future. Despite health hazards and set poverty lines, mothers can improve their lifestyles and the health of their children with assistance from organizations like PACT. This healthy future must begin now with emotional support and nurturing families. These beginnings will require a better environment in the city by non-profit and government action, but small starts at Early Pre-K education and healthcare can yield positive returns for vulnerable children and their families. From overcoming separation anxiety to conquering homelessness, our world can be improved little by little.

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