Monday, October 29, 2018

A Perfect Match

Georges Annan Kingsley with one of his art works displayed at an Asylum Hill art show.

On Saturday, October 20, 2018, Georges Annan Kingsley awoke to a new life. Georges received his long awaited kidney transplant the night before. A perfect match, his new kidney worked immediately. This perfect match was on top of another successful transplant just twenty-three days earlier. On September 27, 2018, the United States welcomed Georges as a new citizen. It's a blessing for Georges and his family. It's a blessing for the greater Hartford community. It's a perfect match.

Georges at his citizenship ceremony on September 27, 2018 in New Haven

Georges' citizen celebration party  hosted by the Asylum Hill Welcoming Committee 

All who know Georges love him, his wife Asse Marthe Ntchohou, and his son, Joe-William.  A well respected resident of Hartford's Asylum Hill Neighborhood, Georges is a community leader. He's an accomplished artist (he has a painting on display in the White House), a teacher, and a radio host, as well as an Asylum Hill community organizer championing the acceptance and well being of refugees and immigrants. Despite being tethered to exhausting dialysis sessions three times a week prior to his transplant, Georges' prolific production of paintings and sculptures ensured his works were always on display at local art shows. Most recently he had a two-week exhibition at Connecticut's Legislative Office Building. Incredibly he found even more strength to organize cultural celebrations, sponsor clothing drives, teach art classes, and promote job skills training for new arrivals in his welcoming Hartford neighborhood.

Georges hosting this Good Times show which airs
Saturdays on Ghana Beats Radio from 12:00-2:00 p.m.

George is a transplant who has taken root in Hartford successfully. His compelling stories about escaping from political persecution in Côte d'Ivoire and his quest for a kidney transplant are well documented. I've covered a bit of them in my blog posts: My Friend Needs a Kidney Transplant, and Listen to the Heartbeat of Africa in Hartford about Ghana Beats Radio, the on-line radio station he and his business partner, John Ackeifi, launched to serve the sub-Sahara African diaspora living in greater Hartford. But those posts only tell a small bit of his story.

To learn more about Georges I've compiled a series of links to stories that present a more complete appreciation of this talented and compassionate man who was a model citizen long before he actually became one. His perseverance and optimism embody Connecticut's motto Qui transtulit sustinet: "He who transplanted sustains."

Links to articles, videos, and a podcast about Georges Annan Kingsley:

Political Refugee Showing Art Work at Passages Gallery

New Voices of Asylum Hill

New England Public Radio Words in Transit (podcast)

My Friend Needs a Kidney Transplant

Listen to the Heartbeat of Africa in Hartford

The National Arts Program

Nine Neighborhood Murals Chosen for Hartford Paint the City

Ivory Coast Artist at Hartford Public Library

Voices of Wisdom: Newcomer Stories

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.; the photo of Georges with the judge was submitted by the Georges Annan Kingsley family.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Habitat Homeowners Help Others Help Themselves

Janice and Kerry Foster with a KJ Foster Scholarship Fund recipient

Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity is celebrating the start of its 30th year anniversary. It began with a kickoff party on October 19, 2018 at the Hartford Marriott Downtown. I interviewed Habitat homeowners Janice and Kerry Foster for the event. Here is their story.  

Raised in Hartford’s Stowe Village housing project, Janice and Kerry Foster lived first-hand the challenges facing their families, friends, and neighbors striving for better lives and looking for a way out of poverty housing. Throughout their school years they were close friends, eventually marrying  and raising a wonderfully close-knit family. Though they lived through some tough times and a searing family tragedy, they became pillars of their Hartford neighborhood, always championing better lives for anyone in need.

As a nineteen-year old seeking his path in life, Kerry seized the opportunity to join the Hartford Fire Department (HFD), and a rewarding, three-decade public service career ensued. Racing to the rescue became a way of life for Kerry. As a member of HFD's Tactical Unit 1 (Tac-1) Heavy Rescue, Kerry fully embraced his career of running toward emergencies. He proudly boasts that TAC-1 is “one of the busiest emergency rescue units in the country.”

While Kerry was pursuing his HFD career, Janice was employed as a medical office assistant and living in substandard Northeast Neighborhood apartments, the only housing her limited income could afford. When she gave birth to her first child, her building’s infestation of mice and roaches became too much to bear. As a caring single mother struggling to make ends meet, it was a call to action. While searching for better housing, Janice heard about Hartford Habitat for Humanity. With a quick inquiry about the process to become a homeowner, Janice thought that Habitat could be the answer to her prayers. It was. 

When her application was accepted, Janice began her sweat equity as soon as she could under the firm but gentle guidance of former Habitat Family Services Director Steve Zwerling, and the one-on-one coaching of Ruth Puff, her Family Services partner, both of whom the Fosters regard as family. It’s been more than twenty years since Janice moved into her Habitat home. A couple of years after settling in, she and Kerry married, dedicating their lives to each other and their family. Though his successful firefighting career enabled them to live almost anywhere, Kerry emphasized that he and Janice are “anchored to the Northeast Neighborhood forever. We will never leave our 52 Clark Street home,” a home where they raised four children, and welcome visits from their four grandchildren.

Janice and Kerry Foster's Habitat Home

It was a neighborhood they loved - a neighborhood where they could channel their love of Hartford by extending their generous helping hands to ensure their neighbors in need are sheltered, clothed, educated, and fed; they are always cooking for families and big community functions often using the two barbecue smokers in their backyard. Habitat’s mission played a large part in “opening our eyes even wider to the needs of others,” said Kerry.  Yet it all could have ended when they lost their son Kerry Jr., known as KJ, to a senseless random drive-by shooting on Memorial Day in 2006. 

KJ was a bright, popular eighth grader simply playing in his yard when he tragically died. A visiting friend was wounded and survived. Through the strength of their faith, and to honor of the memory of their beloved son, KJ’s passing became another call to action for Janice and Kerry to give even more of their time and treasure to the community. In memory of KJ they established the KJ Foster Scholarship Fund, and then they poured even more of their personal savings into setting up another scholarship, the Janice and Kerry Foster, Sr. Scholarship Fund, both of which are managed by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. Also in memory of KJ, the Fosters sponsor a Waverly Park Little League team, and during Hartford's annual Safe Night Out event a 3-on-3 basketball tournament at the Boys and Girls Club.

“Losing our son made us stronger. We’re proud to be role models and help make things happen. People need to take charge of their lives, and we’re glad to help them. You don’t always need money to do good, most of the time you just need to dedicate the time,” said Kerry.

As Janice so wonderfully believes, "If you give, give from the heart -- and it's the little things that count. You have to start somewhere. It's a wonderful thing to give back. I wouldn't live my life any other way."

Kerry B. Foster Jr.  3 on 3 Basketball Tournament Shirt

By running to the rescue of others and giving back to the community, Janice and Kerry paved the way for neighbors to follow their lead and work together to make their community safer, quieter and a healthier place to call home. Kerry believes in Habitat for Humanity. “It’s a great place. It offers a lot, but you have to go get it. Take the initiative. They’ll help you help yourself.”

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos courtesy of Janice and Kerry Foster, Rich Wright Productions, and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.
Highlighted Links are to videos and Janice Foster's quotation on the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving website.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

For Robin Roy Life is All About Helping Out.

Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity is celebrating the start of its 30th year anniversary. It began with a kickoff party on October 19, 2018 at the Hartford Marriott Downtown. I interviewed Habitat homeowner Robin Roy for the celebration. Here is her story. 

The first night in my new home was surreal,” Robin Roy remembered vividly. It was July 1, 2000. Her two boys were in their rooms, and Robin had a moment to collect her wits and reflect. With the whirlwind of her house dedication and house warming parties over, it was a quiet moment sitting in her living room when she finally realized, “This house is my house. It’s really mine. I thought I’d never own a home, never.”

In 1999, Robin was raising her two sons on her own in a small two-bedroom apartment on Manchester’s Birch Street. Her daughter was a young adult already out on her own. That’s when Robin’s rent notice arrived. Her landlord was raising her rent, which would stress her slim budget even further. But she had hope. She recently received her income tax refund. She thought that perhaps the refund coupled with some other grant could finally open the door to homeownership. She called the Connecticut 2-1-1 Help Line for guidance on possible opportunities to pursue, but after following up she found every door locked shut despite a “pretty good credit rating,” and a regular income working in the Alstom Power company cafeteria. It simply wasn’t enough to obtain a mortgage. Then a chance comment by the 2-1-1 counselor led to another way – perhaps she should try Hartford Habitat for Humanity.

“What’s Habitat for Humanity?” she thought. When she first heard about Habitat, Robin was a skeptic. Her initial reaction was, “Is this organization for real?” But she committed to checking it out at an Applicant Information Meeting, and it was there she listened to former Family Services Director Steve Zwerling explain Habitat’s homeownership program. She learned that Habitat was planning to build three houses in Manchester, including one already under construction on Wells Street.

Habitat Homeowner Robin Roy

Though she took an application, Robin wasn’t fully convinced that Habitat was “for real;” that is until she visited the Wells Street site and saw first-hand “all these guys building away as a team.” She was so inspired that she wanted to “pick up a hammer right then an there” just like she was taught growing up helping out in her father’s auto repair garage.

Robin quickly completed the Habitat application and letter of interest. Where the application asked which of three towns Habitat currently would be building did she prefer, she listed “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester” to emphasize that Manchester was definitely where she wanted to stay. While she knew that if accepted Habitat made no promises as to where she might be offered an opportunity to buy a house, Robin committed to proving she was serious. She volunteered immediately to help build the next Habitat home already under construction on Bissell Street. It was winter, snowy and cold. It paid off.

Robin was working in the cafeteria when she got “the call.” Habitat had accepted her application. Her new home would be built on Manchester’s Foster Street. Taken completely by surprise, Robin, with her eyes welling up in tears, joyfully shouted out the good news right in front of her customers, who then followed up with cheers all around. Many cards and best wishes soon followed propelling her forward.

Robin had never done carpentry, but, undeterred, she pitched in every weekend she could to help build her new home. “I cut the rails on my porch”, she said proudly as she showed off her still sturdy handiwork. “I wouldn’t have gotten a home without Habitat,” she added with the satisfaction of knowing her sweat equity helped build it. She tells everyone Habitat has always been there for her. One winter, a few years after moving in, she discovered icicles were forming in her attic. She asked Bud Moyer, a long time and beloved Habitat Saint who had worked on her house, to take a look. He determined it was because moisture wasn’t venting properly. Without a second thought, Bud voluntarily fixed the problem by installing additional soffit vents. 

Robin Roy's Habitat House

Robin is a big believer in Habitat, and she’ll try to help anyway she can. For Robin, “Life is all about helping out.” Having a safe, affordable home stabilized her family life. It gave her time focus on raising her family, as well as herself. She eventually earned her GED, and now works for Companions & Homemakers serving people in need. It’s a natural fit and a job she loves.  In two years her mortgage will be paid off, and then she can truly say, “This house is my house. It’s really mine."

Don Shaw, Jr.
Writer and Editor

Photos by Don Shaw, Jr.