The Little White House of Hope

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By JOE DIGLIO (Photo by Chen Ziniu)

A van sits in the parking lot at 200 Wyoming St., its side door sporting a rather curious message: “The Little White House of Hope.” It’s a reference to the small building on that same property, formally known as the Westside Family Resource Center. Inside that building sits Mary Alice Smothers.

Mary_Alice_Smothers_coverBut “sits” is a generous term, since Smothers, the center coordinator, does very little of that there. She’s usually helping a child like Enmanuel Mateo, who applied for a summer job through CNY Works, a nonprofit organization that helps people get jobs.

Smothers warned Enmanuel, 14, that with his youth and inexperience, he’d have to keep up his grades. “You need a high GPA, that’s what will get you recognized,” she said.

Enmanuel shrugged it off, sure that Mary Alice herself would be able to help him. It was not a lack of concern — just confidence. “You’ve got my back, Ms. Mary Alice,” he said. “I’m not worried.”

In a city where half the kids never make it out of high school (graduation rate 51 percent) and where just as many households are run by a single parent (an estimated 56 percent, according to Census data), people like Mary Alice Smothers and places like the resource center provide not just a place to go, but a refuge, a model for behavior and a substitute for what’s missing.

It is not easy for the helpers, or the helped. Americans are depending more on government aid than ever — 18 percent of their income came from checks for food stamps, unemployment and the like in 2010, according to an analysis by USA TODAY — at a time when the social safety net is being trimmed by 5.1 percent across-the-board automatic budget cuts.

“The community-based organizations are the ones doing the social piece and a lot of the education piece,” Smothers said of the center and the landscape she must navigate. “When you go into social work, you can’t go in judging anybody. You have to guide them, because a lot of them are lost. You’ve got to teach them how to function.”

Even when the center had a week off from its afterschool programs with schools closed for President’s Week last winter, Smothers didn’t take a break. She used the time for housekeeping and maintenance — easier without 20 children around — installing new shelves and cabinets.

Enmanuel Mateo recites the Coyote Pledge

“In June I’ll be doing the same thing,” she added back then, referring to the window between the end of the school year and the beginning of her summer program, which runs from the beginning of July until the middle of August.

“Then, I have to change the tables, get the carpets cleaned, make sure the basketball hoops are in place,” she continued, listing all of the preparations for the children’s arrival in the summer.

Smothers has run the program every summer in the seven years she’s been at the resource center. Between that and the afterschool program, where older students tutor the younger ones, she has spent 2,000 days practicing her own brand of social engineering.

“You have to gain trust, you have to get to know these kids, so you know who’s telling the truth and who isn’t,” she said. “I know these children. I know their attitudes, their tempers. I know when they get upset, or when they’re lying.”