Dasani is 12 years old and has the weight of the world on her shoulders. She is playful, smart and loves to dance. She’s somewhat of surrogate mother to her younger siblings and has an extra special bond with her one-year-old sister, Lele.
The New York Times is taking readers into the lives of Dasani, her seven siblings and their parents in a multi-part series about homeless children that is as riveting as it is depressing. After reading investigative reporter Andrea Elliott’s series titled “Invisible Child,” I find myself haunted by a single question: Who will help Dasani and her siblings?
They are living in what seems to be an impossible situation. Both parents are present — though their father seems less present — yet they are wrestling with drug addictions and joblessness. They are living in a junk-filled mice-infested room in a substandard homeless shelter in Brooklyn. The toilet for this family of nine is a mop bucket. The showers must be guarded while in use because rapists and child molesters live there too. One of their children is legally blind and they rely on Dasani, their oldest child, to be a leader and caregiver for her siblings. That is far too much weight for any 12-year-old to bear.
The series explores the extremes of wealth and poverty that can be found within the same few Brooklyn blocks. Yet the inhabitants of Marcy Housing Projects, where Jay Z grew up, the homeless shelter and multi-million dollar apartments exist in alternate universes. Many readers will come away from the series with a simple conclusion: these children have no hope of growing up whole and healthy because their parents’ lives are a mess.
It’s clear from the reporting that Dasani’s mother loves her children. But she doesn’t seem to know how to care for their physical and emotional needs. She has them wait outside a store while she goes in to steal food; even though she knows they know she steals. She tells them it’s okay to do so when necessary. The family’s patriarch is even more troubled. He is in and out drug rehab and often squanders the public assistance his family receives on things like a dozen roses for his wife.
The series shines a spotlight on the plight of the city’s homeless; especially its children and contrasts it with wealthy public officials such as outgoing New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has bragged publicly about the quality of the city’s homeless shelters.
For me, the most hopeful aspects of Dasani’s story are the relationship Dasani has cultivated with her no-nonsense school principal, Miss Holmes; and her favorite teacher, Miss Hester. For her students, Miss Hester is a symbol of what can happen if you work hard in school and work even harder to rise above your circumstances. Miss Hester is a child of the city’s housing projects who did everything right. When her peers make fun of her for talking and acting white, she ignored them and continued to excel in her classwork. For her efforts, she received a full scholarship to college.
She sees great potential in Dasani, who has book smarts and is wise beyond her years because of the weight she carries for her entire family. If there is hope and help for Dasani and her siblings, it is the examples they see in people like Miss Hester, who has returned to the community to inspire those who would follow her.
The New York Times is a powerful institution with worldwide reach. I’m sure people will read about Dasani and her siblings and want to help. I hope their parents get the treatment they need to be whole for their children. In part five of the series, Dasani and her family move from the shelter that has been their home for three years into a two-bedroom apartment shelter that is clean and offers more privacy. I pray her troubled parents can make it work, for Dasani and her siblings sake.
To read the series, go to: http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/invisible-child/#/?chapt=1