Ms. Gail Avent
Our Spotlight for the month of September 2012 is Ms. Gail Avent, the Founder and Executive Director of the Total Family Care Coalition, a 501(c)(3) organization located in Southeast, Washington, DC. We will talk with Ms. Avent about her involvement in the human services field and what it was that inspired her to embark upon the Total Family Care Coalition. We will also discuss her vision and mission for the Coalition, and learn about its various resources and programs.
Destiny – Pride: Good morning, Ms. Avent.
Ms. Avent: Good morning, Mr. Mayfield.
Destiny – Pride: Destiny Pride thanks you for being our Spotlight of the Month for September 2012. I have had the recent opportunity to get to know you and to learn about Total Family Care Coalition and the fine job you are doing to assist the disenfranchised residents in this area. I’d like to give you the opportunity to introduce yourself and your organization to our visitors, but first let us learn about you. Please tell us a little about yourself – your parents, your siblings, and your early life experiences.
Ms. Avent: Thank you, Mr. Mayfield. I’d be happy to tell you about myself. I am originally from South Carolina, born in Gaffney, South Carolina – a small town. I grew up with two parents. My father worked a lot. He did road work when they were building Highway 85 all the way from, I think, Virginia to Florida. He was one of the black workers who worked on that highway and built it.
My mom was a mother and a father most of the time, but when we were growing up, she always emphasized education. I’m the next to the last of seven kids. It was me and my sister who actually were growing up together. In my family, most of my sisters and brothers were older than I was, so it was like she had two sets of kids. My brothers and sisters were older; then she had me and my baby sister; so we enjoyed her attention more than the other kids did. But like I said, she emphasized education. She didn’t have an education herself – I think she stopped in the fourth grade – but she was truly amazing!
I used to be in awe of my mother. I could never see why she had this calm disposition. She never raised her voice. She never argued. My father was a handful on the weekends, but she was always the same person and I could feel her protecting us kids. It wasn’t anything she said, but it was just her spirit. I knew she was something special, but I didn’t know what it was. I could see, when other people interacted with her, that they saw her as something special. I always admired that and wondered how could a person be admired for being simply a person, and I think it comes from the spirit of the person – the way the person presents themselves to others. They always say it’s not how we value ourselves; it’s others who see us and what we do and how we carry ourselves that value us more than we do. I grew up with that.
I left South Carolina when I finished high school and came to Washington, DC because my sisters were here. I had two sisters. I always was a dreamer as a kid, so I planned my life out as a child on what I wanted to do, but this was not in the course – this organization was not in the course of my future. I was like every other kid who saw Perry Mason on TV, so I wanted to be an attorney. I came to Washington and went to American University. But before I got to American University, I knew I didn’t have enough money to go to college, so I said, “Well, let me see how I can finance this.” So the Metropolitan Police Department lowered the standard for height requirement to allow females to come on the Police Department. I said, “I’m going to be a police officer,” even though I was scared to death of guns. I was going to be a police officer! That was one of my ways of seeing myself overcome my fear of guns – getting a gun with the Police Department.
Destiny – Pride: Okay, I’m going to put a pin right there. We’re going to pick that up, but my next question is are you married and are there any children?
Ms. Avent: Well, I’m not the best judge of character in husbands, I must say, but I have been married twice. I have four children; I had one before I got married and I had three during the first marriage. From the second marriage I had no children. Unfortunately, of the four kids, I lost two. I lost my oldest daughter to pneumonia. My second son, I lost him to violence. He was killed in a robbery. He was set up after coming back on leave from being in the Air Force over the weekend and somebody killed him.
Destiny – Pride: So sorry to hear about your loss. I’m sure that must have been devastating. Describe for us your educational experience.
Ms. Avent: Well, like I said before, the Police Department had a program to get a free education. It was at American University. You had to get a criminal justice degree. I pursued that as a way to get me an education because I thought it was important, even if you had stumbling blocks in your life, to keep going on with your dreams and aspirations. Not to give up on them because, to me, faith and hope are the only things I can really hang on to. If you have faith and hope that you can accomplish something, even though you may have to push the timeline back, you still should work towards that all your life. I see people doing it all the time.
So I got my undergrad degree from American University. After I got my degree, I quit the Police Department because I got accepted into law school.
Destiny – Pride: How long were you with the Police Department?
Ms. Avent: I was with the Police Department for ten years. It took me a long time because I wasn’t in any rush to get my degree, but I just wanted to do it because I was having kids. Being a police officer at that time was challenging because we had to rotate shifts. We didn’t have the set shifts like they have now. They really didn’t give us any preference – any “easy” jobs for the females; we had to do everything. But it didn’t deter me from what I wanted to do.
So I quit the Police Department. I had no income; had to get on welfare because at this time, my first husband was on his way to jail while I was on my way to law school. I said I was not the best person to pick a husband and the goal really turns quickly. But I didn’t even let that deter me because I started to take on the characteristics of my mother of trying to protect my kids and protect what I wanted for us. As a parent, you try to shield your kids away from stuff you think they don’t see. But they see it. We don’t think as parents that they see it because we’re so committed to protecting and shielding them, but we really are exposing them to what we think we are not.
Because I was in an abusive relationship, it did affect my kids. So, in a way I was kind of happy that my husband went to prison, because it gave us an opportunity to be without him to concentrate and try to figure out how to live a better life. I was committed – even though it was tough. It was very tough!
I didn’t have rent money some times. A lot of people helped me to get the kids back and forth to school. I was determined. My neighbor, two doors down from me, even gave me a little car to help me get my kids back and forth to school, because they didn’t go to the neighborhood schools. I was blessed in having people see my struggles and help me along the way. I was happy about that.
I finished law school and I was determined. I didn’t have two, three, five, six times to pass the bar; I had to pass it on the first time. I had to! So I found me a job and worked and studied for the bar. I took the bar and because of God’s grace, I passed the bar the first time!
By that time, here comes brother man out of prison, thinking he’s going to come back. But I couldn’t let him take me backwards. I had to keep going forward. So I kept seeing life as being able to go forward and being able to overcome the struggles. I looked at my kids looking at me to be the person to help determine how they were going to be. So I learned early, and I took my job as being a parent seriously, and I was going to do the best I could under the circumstances. And that’s what people don’t understand. Parents want to be good parents. But we have to also look at the daily challenges that we encounter, while we still try to make decisions.
So I was able to get a job, but I didn’t get a high priced job, working for a big law firm. Actually, I started my own practice doing bankruptcy cases – something that was non-personal, but people did have struggles, and it was able to make me some money.
So here comes my first husband back and things got worse. I didn’t have the strength to do what I thought I was going to do. So I caved in and he came back in. Life just went downhill from there. To make a long, sad story short, he took my kids to Boston. That was the most devastating thing in my life because I felt that, of all the things I went through, here’s this man taking my kids! I thought I had protected them. But that’s what I really realized: I had not done what I thought I had, and that was to protect my kids, because I should have made the decision early on, which I didn’t do. Because we’re human, we play on the side of valuing the institution of marriage or trying to buy into society’s value that having two parents is better than not having two parents to raise a kid and trying to instill in kids to be better than we are. But we’re struggling really to find out who we are!
That took me on an odyssey to where I began fighting what I saw was a disrespect for the family as a unit, a disrespect for government’s view of how families are, and a disrespect of how they treated families and youth, and how they devalued youth. They “pimp” the philosophy that children are the future, but guess what? How are they going to be the future if they don’t have parental support? And if we can’t be supportive of them in a good way, it’s no future! You can’t say that. But when you say words like that, you give kids the impression that they don’t have to have a parent: “I’m going to make it some kind of way. It’s going to be some kind of magical transformation that’s going to carry me through and in the end I’m going to have a beautiful future.” But it is work all the way; there are no steps that can be missed. You miss a step when you give that view to the families; that they [parents] are not important, but the kid is. You are wasted, you’re done; it’s over for you, but the kid is alright. But guess what? You cannot allow children to think that they don’t need their parents, because I see it too many times.
The conflict comes from the government “parenting” kids, and I tell government all the time: a government cannot parent kids because the government is an inanimate component that operates on the principle of how to make money. It’s a business behind that principle: how to promote and get bragging rights that we do things this way; we’re tough on this; we’re tough on that. But you’re really not tough on anything. You’re soft on everything and the fuel that’s driving all of this is financial gain. It’s not “human” gain. When it happened to me, that’s when I knew it had to get it back to being human gain. Forget the finance! It’s no finance if I can’t rest because my son is in the street. It’s no finance for me. It’s no finance for you because I’m not being a productive worker. It’s no finance when you have to put out funeral bills for a fallen son or daughter because of crime; because no one was there to help me. Not blame and shame me, but to say “I know you’re having it tough, but what can I do for you?” Ask me a question; don’t tell me how I should have taken some money that I sacrificed to pay the electric bill for – “You should have paid your rent.” What do you want me to do? I had to make a choice, and under the circumstances I tried to make the best choice.
When people go into agencies, the people who are serving them really are the same as the person sitting on the other seat trying to get the services, but the mentality is that because they have a job and they are government workers, somehow they can discount the client as not being a person, but a “case” – an inanimate object. They’ll say, “Do you have this case?” or “what case do you have?” Not “what ‘person’ or what ‘family’ do you have”? So they don’t care about the person because no one told them that they should care about these people as people. They just go by the rules. They say, “For you to get food stamps you have to have this amount of dollars.” If you are ten cents over, you’re not getting any appeals. Nothing. That’s what the rule says. I don’t care what the rules say! They say, “Next month, try to spend money more wisely.”
But when you come in and say, “Well, maybe you’re not looking at how you’re spending and maybe you’re not spending on the right products or the right things. And why is it that you think you need things?” Ask people questions. Then they can start thinking to themselves and making their own self-assessment: “Maybe she’s right. Maybe I don’t need that.” But when you come in and you beat them over the head, “You don’t need this. How are you going to come in here with a pair of Nike shoes on? You say you don’t have any money. Why do you have those Nike sneakers on? They look like they’re new to me.” Well that’s not their business. Somebody could have given them to them. But they want to get all into your business, and I have to say that they’re doing it because a lot of people are reflective of them. They are operating on the fear of maybe going back to the person on the other side of that desk or knowing that they are that same person and just don’t want to own up to it.
Destiny – Pride: What faith are you and what is it that grounds you?
Ms. Avent: I guess I’m a Baptist. My mama grew up in the Baptist church.
Destiny – Pride: Did you go to church when you were in Gaffney?
Ms. Avent: I went in Gaffney.
Destiny – Pride: What was the church?
Ms. Avent: The church was Island Creek. Actually, on my father’s side, every male in his family was a minister.
Destiny – Pride: Yeah?
Ms. Avent: Every one of them. So you had to be at church. There was no way to get around that. But I saw church as a way to give you spiritual growth in something to believe in because you can’t go through life not believing in something. You can’t say “I believe in myself; I’m the captain of my own ship.” That’s bull crap! That ship’s going to sink every time. You have to have to have something higher that you can believe is better, even if you don’t see it as faith. It’s hope. It’s things that are unseen but that you believe will come. That’s what I saw in the church and that’s what I understood as a kid from the bible. Nothing is going to come to me right away; it’s going to be a process, and I have to work towards it. If I veer off the road that’s been set for me, I am going to run into some stumbling blocks. I understood that as a kid, but when you set that in motion, sometimes the wheel falls off the cart and you start wobbling down that road, but you try to stay on that road. That’s why I stayed in church, because I “wobbled.” But I’m not going to let but so many of those wheels fall of that wagon. I’m going to keep it going straight.
Destiny – Pride: Name those individuals who have made the greatest impact on you and the major choices you have made in your life. Of one, you’ve already spoken very forcefully, and that’s your mother.
Ms. Avent: My mother.
Destiny – Pride: Yes. What’s her name?
Ms. Avent: Novella.
Destiny – Pride: Novella.
Ms. Avent: Yes. She was the oldest of four and she was just a motherly figure, and that’s why I guess people gravitate to me. I think it’s a combination of coming through life meeting different people, because I can see that at different stages in my life, people came in and out that left me with something to keep going. It was teachers in elementary because I always prided myself in trying to be smart. Teachers would always say, “You’re smart; you’re going to go somewhere.” I always took what people said as fuel to keep me going. It was people, through life, that may not even know what a significant impact they made. It’s like you go through life on a journey and you pick up deposits of hope, wisdom and reassurance that you’re a good person and, for the most part, you’re making pretty good decisions, and so you just keep going! And that’s the way I look at it because I don’t want to just say this person or that person, but it’s everybody, on a daily basis – endless faces.
Destiny – Pride: Let me ask this question. During your ten years on the police force, how did that impact you – positively or negatively – and how did that kind of structure cause you to make adjustments in your life?
Ms. Avent: Well, first, being a female made it a negative impact on me – just dealing with my fellow officers, because they had male chauvinist attitudes. Some of the white officers didn’t want the black males there, much less black females. When it came to assignments, females didn’t get the good assignments. When I came out of the training academy, I was at 13th and V Streets, Northwest. That was one of “the” worst precincts in the city at that time, back in the late 70’s.
One time at midnight, I asked the Sergeant for a radio because it was the midnight shift: eleven to seven. So I said, “Sergeant, I need a radio.” He said, “Did you get sworn in with one? You need to just get on out there without a radio.” He said, “Catch a call box,” because back then they had call boxes on the corner. So I guess if somebody was beating my tail, I gotta slide up the call box and . . .
Destiny – Pride: Get the key out.
Ms. Avent: Get the key out, climb up on the pole, pull the phone out, wait for somebody to answer it at the station and tell them to come help me! I don’t think so!
So I learned from being on the police force, and they didn’t want you to complain because then they viewed you as being weak. It was a challenge. To be quite honest, the white officers didn’t want to deal with the black females too much, but we were fair game to the other police officers – they thought we were “their” women! We couldn’t have our own identity. It was like we were brought there for them. So we had to fend off our fellow police officers. I learned how to start putting boundaries in relationships because if they did befriended you, they’d talk about it. It was a double-edged sword, so what could you do? You just tried to maintain a pretty good relationship with them.
You didn’t want to ride with them in the car too much because, you know, they were just talking nonsense most of the time. Or either, they would take you by the girlfriend’s house and you would have to sit outside while they were in the girlfriend’s house. It was a joke most of the time. Then the guys would have their girlfriends come up, and you knew they were married. I said, “wow.”
It was kind of fun at times, but it was hard. When I got to walking that beat on Columbia Road, that’s when I learned how to network with all of the business establishments because I figured it was those people who were going to help save me when I didn’t have a radio. I had that gun, but guess what? That gun doesn’t mean a whole lot sometimes. If people want to get you, they’re going to get you! So I had a whole network of folks in the community that I started being friendly with.
Destiny – Pride: Now tell us about the Total Family Care Coalition and what it was that inspired you to start it.
Ms. Avent: Well, as I was saying before, my marriage came crumbling down and when I wanted to get out, it became almost deadly. My husband took the kids from where we lived in Maryland and left town. I came one day back from court and he had packed all of the kids up and had packed the house up – I guess he must have had some people helping him – and was on his way to Boston. It felt like somebody just just ripped the guts out of me.
He was just a mean man. He wanted me to stay in the relationship, but I couldn’t stay. When I filed for a divorce, he thought that if he got the kids, that would lure me back. But he didn’t know – and I didn’t know – that that had begun the process of making me stronger because sometimes we are too stupid as humans to get ourselves out of things, and God has to jerk us out or cause something to get our attention. I think it worked because I’ve always had a belief. I didn’t go to church all the time, but I had that belief that God was going to make a way. He’s not going to put more on you than you can handle and if you stay strong, you can overcome.
So after about a week of wallowing in my pain and misery and crying my eyes out, I decided to shut my law practice down and start on the road of getting my kids back. I didn’t need to be making a lot of money. I needed a job where I could make some money where there was less responsibility and less stress. So I did that.
Then I started calling the court in Boston to inquire about my rights. Even though I was an attorney, I didn’t realize that I did not have custody of my own kids because it never would come up. People go through life thinking they have kids and they’re yours. No! Let something happen and see who has them. Neither one of you, and the courts are going to have you battle over who gets them. So I said, “Okay. Even though I want to go and play ‘Rambo,’ on this guy, that’s not going to help them because even if I could ‘take him out,’ they still won’t be with me and I will have double harmed them.” So I said, “Okay, well I’m going to go the legal way, and let’s see what happens.”
I started filing papers, but before I could get papers filed in court, he filed papers saying I was nowhere around. He told the kids that I was dead. That was devastating to a two-year old – to try to understand what this man was saying: that your mom is dead! He saw you that morning. You took him to school. You took the other kids to school and then he’s going to come in at five or six o’clock and say your mama is dead, but he’s not going to show you a body? He’s going to tell you “Let’s go”; but he’s not going to tell you let’s have a funeral? It was too much!
I fought and I fought and I fought. I gained confidence by fighting. I didn’t’ care if they didn’t like my roughness. I didn’t’ care if they didn’t like what I was saying or the way I was saying it. I was speaking from being a mom.
I eventually got them back. When I got my baby son back, he was nine years old. When I got him back, I thought it was going to be the happiest day of my life, but here I am getting disappointed again. I guess I was too naïve, in a way, about a lot of things. But it’s not unlike other folk because you do imagine fighting for your kids and getting them back, and it’s going to be okay. But it did not happen that way. When I got him back, I found out he had suffered something. I did not know what it was, but his behavior was off the chain. I started challenging the DC public school system, saying that something wasn’t right. I know he’s bad but he just can’t be “bad” bad. Something was going on with him.
I worked with the school to try to get him an evaluation. They developed an IEP for him. They think that an IEP is the true all for everything – Individualized Education Plan – but it’s not! He had behavioral problems; he had no learning disability. It was “behavioral” –behavior that was just outrageous! He started stealing cars. He started skipping school. He broke into the teachers’ lounge. He pulled the fire alarm. He sprayed the fire extinguisher in the hallway. They said, “Come and get your son!” I said, “Okay.”
I’d take him out of that school and beg someone else to put him in another school; same thing. He befriended people at this other school – I’m not going to call the name. I thought he liked school. He was leaving home at 5:00 in the morning to go across town to this school off of North Capitol Street. I said, “Oh, wow. This is the first time he’s ever been interested in school this much.”
About two weeks later, I get a call from school saying, “Your son stole some laptops from school.” I said, “Laptop? Are you sure?” They said, “Yep, because the boy he gave it to told us that he got it from your son.” I said, “He ‘gave’ it away? He stole something and just gave it away?” So I knew he wasn’t stealing because he wanted it; it was the thrill of taking something from somebody else, and that was mimicking what he was feeling. Somebody had taken something – me – away from him.
I started looking at his behavior, trying to analyze it from a different perspective because just like every parent will tell you, he got beatings because I didn’t know better. We grew up getting whippings, thinking that was the cure for us and that it would correct our behavior. But it didn’t. It really did not. And I knew, too, with my trying to beat him “sane” and beat him “straight,” it was not doing the job, and it was not going to do the job.
So I talked to somebody else and I got a therapist. I said, “Okay, let’s put a therapist on it.” So it was therapy for three years. This boy went to therapy every Thursday, and I would talk to the therapist actually more than my son would. So I was getting all of the free services. I asked him, “What does he say?” and he said, “Not much.” I said, “Not much in three years?” He said, “No.” He said, “What I do is I would ask, ‘What do you want today?’ and he’d tell me what he wanted to eat, and that’s where we would go.” He would give him little tidbits of information during his “meal” that he felt like he was faking out the therapist. But therapist actually was observing him and he said to me, “Your son is like somebody who has been brainwashed.” He said, “When he was with his father, his father hammered into him what he wanted him to know; how he wanted him to act, even towards you,” because my son had started telling me, “You’re not my mother. We have no relationship. You’re just a woman,” but I told him, “I don’t care what you say. I know who I am; I am your mother!” He didn’t respect me. He didn’t have the bond. If he did, he had it suppressed.
That’s when I said that I was going to form an organization that’s going to help other people get mental help for their children and for themselves because the services should not just be for the child. It should be for the parent and the child because that’s who we have to fix. That’s who we have to try to keep together. So that’s why we have Total Family Care.
Destiny – Pride: Tell us about the services you provide, the programs you offer and identify your customer base.
Ms. Avent: We deal with anyone. What we do is provide parental support and youth support. We empower and teach the parent how to be a better parent. We don’t come in and dissect them on a parenting style, but look at it to say, “Do you think this could help you better?” “Have you tried this?” We get them in a place where they can also understand that we’ve been through the same process. My organization is a family-run organization. We are all parents, or youth caregivers who have had similar stumbling blocks and experiences that I have had with children or relatives. We market it as our way to build trust real fast with the youth and the parent.
When we get a parent, we ask them what’s going on with them and how we can help them, because the other thing we find is that when you take something off of a person’s plate that’s glaring and pressing for them, then they become more at ease and are apt to work with you. For instance, if somebody comes to us and they have a rent problem, we make sure we get them rental assistance so that we can talk with them in a calm way because you can’t get through to a person who is facing eviction. They’re going to choose trying to find a place over trying to help families. So we take that off of the plate so that we can get their attention and make them feel like “you are supported.”
Another thing we find is that a lot of people make assumptions that adults can do the most simplest things. We at Total Family Care make the assumption that they can’t and we come to them and receive whatever it is that they’ve got to tell us, and not judge what they say, and not blame them for saying it. For some folks, it’s the first time they have ever been able to say things. So we listen. We are good listeners for them just to open up – like we are therapists. We’re not therapists, but we find that a lot of people have a lot on their minds and they want to talk. We let them talk. We let them talk for the first time in their lives. And that’s eye-opening for them.
For the youth, we listen to them, but we also tell them that you have to be a child in a family structure. You have to respect your parents. You have to help them. They make assumptions that they [the parents] know everything. We have to tell them, “No, your parents don’t know everything.” They have challenges in their lives. They have unresolved issues. We call it “generational abuse.” We try to stop the cycle of generational abuse by having parents view what happened to them as being traumatic experiences and trying to help them get over those stumbling blocks of their traumatic experiences and go on. Even when we meet parents that are 40 years old, they’re acting like they are ten or twelve because that is the age that they became traumatized. So we have to look back at what happened, and have them understand that it wasn’t their fault. They couldn’t control what happened. It was bad, but you’re grown now and you can make decisions. It’s okay to make decisions, so that they can get past that and start growing.
And they do. But this kid is looking at this 40 year-old person as a forty-year old. We have to tell him “Your parent has something going on, and we’re going to work with them on that.” Don’t blame them. Actually, I want you to help them, and help yourself.” The goal is to keep the family structure together.
We deal with kids that are taken out of their homes by Child and Family Services. We have children who are in the juvenile justice system. We work to try to get them back together. We also go to court – we’re in family court as parent advocates to let the court know the good stuff about what’s going on in the family. A lot of social workers and probation officers get up there and tell the bad stuff. We make it a point to say the good stuff. We go to family team meetings in the community. We’re part of that family team plan to make sure that that plan is being carried out, that the plan is reasonable and is family focused – it’s not what the government says, but what the families say they need to help them. We help them to, behind the scenes, create those objectives to meet that, and we walk them through the process.
Destiny – Pride: You have a number of testimonials on your website where individuals have shared how the Total Family Care Coalition has impacted their lives and their families’ lives. Are there additional experiences that you would like to share with us?
Ms. Avent: Well I think we have on the website where a lady had visited her daughter after not having seen her for two years. If it wasn’t, then I can share that. We had a mother come to us who had ten kids. Eight of the kids were in the care of Child and Family Services, and five of them were on the court’s docket to terminate her parental rights. One of the younger kids – the daughter was five-years old at the time – she hadn’t seen for two years because her daughter was in foster care. The requirement was that she get drug tested, but every time she got drug tested, she was clean. She had three years of clean testing.
I went to a meeting with her, which was at Children’s Hospital. They were going to send her child across country to this specialized psychiatric treatment facility because the child did have emotional and mental health issues. They were not going to let the mother see her daughter before she left. The mother and I were in there battling. I could see that she was really emotional. But I knew that we had a court date the next day, so I said, “Look, don’t worry about this. This is not the fight that we want to fight. When we go to court, I’ll take it to the judge.
I went to court with her the next day and I told the judge that it was unconscionable for anyone to think that just because you’re a drug addict, you’re not a good parent – and you shouldn’t see your kids. How many hoops did she have to jump through to prove that she has changed? She’s got three years of cleanness; she’s had no arrests, no more CFSA involvement [Child and Family Services Agency] because you’ve taken all of the kids. What else does she have to prove before she can see her kids? I said, “Is it really necessary for her to do all of that?” Why can’t she just simply see her daughter? If it’s a problem with her not having good conversation, she should have supervised visits. But there’s no reason – I haven’t seen it – where she should not have a visit.
So the judge thought about it for awhile, and he heard from other folks. He said, “You know what? I agree. She should see her child, and I’m going to write the Order today that she can see her child ‘today’.” That lady busted out crying! She was so happy, and that was so powerful for me to see her feel like she finally had accomplished something in her life. As a parent, even though people tell us the child is okay, we have to see that the child still has two eyes, a nose, two ears, and they’ve got all their limbs. We have to see the visual. It’s not good enough just to tell us they’re okay; we have to see them. And once we see them, we’re okay. I think that’s what she wanted to do – just to see her so it could be okay. The judge said, “If we can get her transportation.” He said, “Ms. Avent, can you take her?” I said, “Of course I can!” But when we called the hospital after we left court, I think she was in some kind of test, so we took her the very next day. She started out having supervised visits and then she was having visits on her own.
When we came back to court, she reported how wonderful it was and she thanked the judge for allowing her to have that visit. He said, “I’m going to take ‘Termination of Parental Rights’ off of my docket as a goal, and we’re going to put ‘Reunification’ for all of the kids. Over the last three years we have worked with this mom and this spring she got two of them back.
Next week, this lady’s daughter is coming home because she did have to go off to another place to get some treatment, but during that time she was able to visit. She had never been on a plane and she called me saying, “Ms. Avent, they want me to go on a plane.” I said, “Well just take your medication; don’t worry about it. You’ve made the biggest hurdle. Get on that plane and go see your daughter!” She asked, “Can you come?” I said, “I can come if you really want me to, but I think you can do this on your own.” She said, “Okay, then. I just want you to know that I’m going.” I said, “Okay, call me when you get there.” She did. She was so delighted. She said, “Ms. Avent, I was on that plane, and I just thought about what you said: ‘just calm down.’ When I got there I was so happy!” So she overcame fear of flying on an airplane. And, oh my God, she is the most tender person I’ve seen. She herself had overcome a lot in her life.
She shared with me some of her stories. She said her mom didn’t even value her as a girl. When she was growing up, her mother made her wear boys’ clothes. Her mother put her out when she was twelve. She was living in the streets, so I’m not surprised of what I saw when I saw her, but other people were. I was really happy to see that she was still surviving, you know what I mean? And happy to see that she still wanted to be a parent. That’s the most important thing that I get to see on my side of the fence that other people don’t get to see. I see the parent who really, really, really wants to be a good parent.
One day, she went to a Family Team Meeting and I went with her, because she thinks I have to go everywhere with her. The facilitator asked her who are the biggest supporters in her life. This is paramount. She said God is number one. Then she said, “Ms. Avent and my stepfather.” I just felt like bursting out in tears because, for her to say that, you really have to elevate a person to a place where you really believe that. But for that person in your life, you still want to be around. I took it as being a serious acclamation of what parents can do to help other parents. I took it as being an affirmation that we can make a difference if we just treat people like humans. I took it as an affirmation to say if we stop blaming and shaming people, who knows what kinds of results we can get out of folks.
Destiny – Pride: What do you see as being the greatest obstacle or obstacles in addressing the needs of those individuals or families to whom you have been providing services?
Ms. Avent: Well one that I’m challenged the most is getting the families and the youth to understand that if you advocate in a good way, you can get help and get services. And for the government to understand that when folks come into their agencies they need to be receptive to looking at the person as a person and asking questions and not making judgments upfront.
Destiny – Pride: How might anyone get in contact with the Coalition for help or to give assistance? Are you primarily restricted to Ward 6 or this area, like Potomac Gardens, or can anyone just get a hold of you?
Ms. Avent: Well anyone. We provide services citywide, but Potomac Gardens is my baby because I think as a community-based organization, I should position myself where there is a cluster of people who have been shunned by agencies and society for decades. I want my folks here at Potomac Gardens to know that I’m proud of them. I’ve seen the transformation of them. Change is slow; it’s not fast.
Anyone in this city who wants to come, can come. We provide services free of charge. For the most part, we come out to folks’ homes. We don’t ask people to come to our office because we know that’s the way that government does business. I do business differently. I want people to know that I don’t care too much about how your house looks; I care about you as a person, and I’m coming to your house to help you. Not to look at what you have in your house or your refrigerator, or whatever. That can be dealt with later, but my most important reason for coming is to help you. So we come to families. We go anywhere in this city where we have to be. We don’t have traditional hours. We are available 24/7, and believe me, people take that as being what I say – 24/7 – because I get phone calls all the time. But if a parent is needing to talk, even a youth, I’m going to be available to talk. Our phone number here is 202-758-3281.
Destiny – Pride: What’s your address?
Ms. Avent: My address is 1214 Eye Street, SE. We’re in Apartment 11, Potomac Gardens Public Housing Complex.
Destiny – Pride: You also have a website.
Ms. Avent: Yes we do. It’s www.totalfamilycarecoalition.org.
Destiny – Pride: What are your future plans for the Total Family Care Coalition?
Ms. Avent: Well, we bill ourselves as being the leading family-run organization providing behavior services to family and youth in this city. I think our model is a model that we have crafted over the years in working with families and youth. What I want to see – my “dream” dream – is us having more trained parent partners and more trained youth/peer support workers to work with other families.
Some of my work has been with the Department of Mental Health, working with them on the concept of “No Wrong Door,” which you, Mr. Mayfield, have already begun the process of doing. You are a visionary! The Department of Mental Health is a little bit behind you. You have already taken the approach and are working it. But the “No Wrong Door” approach is for agencies to feel the same as you do; to be the same visionary as you that when a family comes into them, they shouldn’t feel like they’ve entered a “wrong door.” They should not be turned away from services. So I’m working hard with the Department of Mental Health on that, but for me, I see a future in building a cadre of parent support workers and peer support workers so that other folks can get the same benefits and feel the same pleasures and see the same smiles that I do when I see a family doing better.
Destiny – Pride: What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment to this day?
Ms. Avent: Well, actually, being here; having this organization actually, because this wasn’t what I had set out to be in life! As I said earlier, I was happy, I thought, in a nine-to-five, working for somebody else. As a kid, you couldn’t have told me that I was going to be here. But being a good servant for the Lord, I had to go where He led me; and so I’m here. I’m here to stay. I see us being here at Potomac Gardens until they say we can’t be here anymore. I would also like to have locations in other parts of the city, but I’m here to stay. This is me.
Destiny – Pride: What would be your major disappointment to this point?
Ms. Avent: If the city did not go through with it’s promise – but they already know me: you are going to go through with your promise! The families are going to be treated differently. But I think my disappointment always is when I see a family in crisis – I hear about a child on TV getting killed or committing a crime when I know that, behind the scenes, there is something going on in the home and had somebody paid attention, something different could have happened.
I have to say at this point that, no, everything did not work out good in my family. As I said, I lost two kids, but I have two kids on this earth. My daughter that is still here, she went on to finish high school and college and went on to finish a Masters Program at Harvard University. I told her you can still go on, I don’t care what it is in life, you can still go on. Don’t give up on anything on any given day because the next day may be the solution to the problem that you thought was never going to get solved. So I’m always looking for tomorrow. The disappointment is that if I don’t keep dreaming, or I don’t keep thinking things are going to get better. That’s the disappointment for me: If I give up, because people look at me to inspire them, so if I’m giving up, they’re giving up. I’m not going to ever give up!
Destiny – Pride: Do you have any hobbies or activities that help you to relax?
Ms. Avent: Well I guess as a nonprofit owner, when do I have time? But I do. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying my hand at bowling.
Destiny – Pride: Oh, Lord! My wife will love that!
Ms. Avent: Well, if you want a high handicap, come see me because I’m not that great of a bowler.
Destiny – Pride: Well, I’m going to let you know that she’s going to beat the pants off of you!
Ms. Avent: Oh, good, good. If she just needs a person on the team to help tip them over, that’s me!
Destiny – Pride: We went bowling recently while in North Carolina, and I’ve been having problems with my knee, but I can never really hold muster with her. I used to be able to beat her once in a while, though. She’s left-handed, and she will . . .
Ms. Avent: I’m left handed!
Destiny – Pride: She put the wood to me. So we were playing in North Carolina, right? And I had it in my mind that “I’m going to beat her; I’m going to beat her.” It started off rough. She was whipping me. Finally, she slipped a little bit and I was ahead. I saw her over there counting on the computer. She was not going to let that happen. I was over there praying to beat her. Needless to say, she won!
Ms. Avent: Very competitive.
Destiny – Pride: She is. Bowling is her passion.
Ms. Avent: Well bowling is mine. It’s just that I haven’t gotten to the . . .
Destiny – Pride: Which means you’re not good!
Ms. Avent: I’m not good!
Destiny – Pride: Are there any last thoughts or insights that you would like to leave with our visitors?
To see the video of Dr. Akhter’s response
To read his response, continue below.
Destiny – Pride: I would just like families and youth to know that you’re not alone because when you think that you’re having it tough, somebody else is having it a little bit worse. That’s what I used to think until I started listening to the countless families and youth that I work with. I know my problem is not as grave as theirs. So I set my problems aside to help other people. We at Total Family Care Coalition, we believe it in keeping families first. So I just wanted you to know that I’m always here, always available, and I do care.
Destiny – Pride: Ms. Avent, Destiny – Pride thanks you for being our Spotlight for September 2012. We have gotten a chance to learn a little bit about your Total Family Care Coalition, and we can see that there are numerous opportunities for you to be of assistance to those most in need of it. We hope for you and your organization the very best and look to hear more about what you are doing in the community. Many, many thanks.
Ms. Avent: Thank you, Destiny – Pride, for coming to hear about Total Family Care Coalition. Thanks again.