Episcopal Charities’ 2016 Tribute Dinner program speakers are Minnie Tomlinson and Beatrice Miller. Both young women attended and worked at Lifting Up Westchester’s Brighter Futures, a program of Grace Church in White Plains, New York. Brighter Futures is an after school educational enrichment and college preparation program for homeless and low-income children.
Minnie and Beatrice have both experienced homelessness, the foster care system, and parents struggling with substance abuse and addiction. Yet both completed high school and some higher education, are employed, and continue to give back to Brighter Futures. Episcopal Charities met with them and Eileen Torres, their mentor, high school counselor, and the program director of Brighter Futures, to learn more about their story and to honor their friendship and resilience.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You met when you were four years old?
Beatrice: About that, four or five-ish.
Where were you when you met?
Minnie: The homeless shelter.
How long were you both there for?
Beatrice: On and off for about a decade.
Do you remember your first meeting?
Beatrice: We were young. We used to be bad back then. We didn’t like to fight, but kids fight, and we met because I was fighting with Minnie’s sister, and Minnie decided to help her sister, and they beat me up, and that’s how we became friends. (Laughs)
Minnie: What a great friendship. (Laughter)
Beatrice: That’s really the way it all started.
What did you think of the shelter?
Minnie: I loved it.
Beatrice: I wish I could go back to those days sometimes. I’m not going to lie. It sounds crazy but those were some of the best days of my life.
Minnie: It wasn’t like a shelter to us. It was home. We experienced a lot of things there that we wouldn’t have if we were just living with our parents’ help.
Eileen: You were there a long time. There was consistency at the shelter, three meals a day.
Beatrice: Clean clothes.
Eileen: Which they didn’t experience out in the community. In the community they would starve [due to] poor budgeting by the parents. So they didn’t know where their next meal was going to come from.
Beatrice: That sounds about right.
Was the shelter how you connected to the Brighter Futures program?
Beatrice: Yeah. They had camp, and we went to camp. I used to pretend to be younger than I was so I didn’t have to go with the big kids.
Tell me more about your early experiences with the camp.
Beatrice: [At] the camp, I experienced things that my parents couldn’t do. My parents wouldn’t take us to the movies. They wouldn’t bring us camping.
Minnie: Or to the pool. They didn’t have money and stuff to do things like that.
Beatrice: We got to experience [a] normal childhood going to camp.
Minnie: They did everything for us: school clothes, school supplies, food.
Minnie: We didn’t have to worry about eating, like Eileen said. We had food at camp.
Beatrice: No one to make fun of us. Everybody’s all the same. (Laughter)
Kids making fun of you, is that something that happened at school?
Beatrice: I know it happened for me and my brothers at school, not having what everyone else has.
Minnie: We had to wear each other’s clothes. I know in my family I had to wear my sister’s clothes a lot, and it shows.
Beatrice: At least you had sisters! I had to wear boy clothes. (Laughter)
Minnie: Tighty whitey underwear.
Eileen: Explain what happened with your father and clothes.
Beatrice: By the time I turned 14 I started working at the camp, and I thought that I no longer needed my parents to buy me clothes and whatnot. So I would buy my own, and I would go to school and come home and everything would be gone, my sneakers, everything down to underwear. It didn’t really matter. My dad would steal it, [sell it], get high. Then as we got older, we got smarter and we started leaving everything at school, and [Eileen’s] office practically became my room.
Could you share more about your home lives, what your parents were doing, what it was like growing up with your siblings? Are you still in touch with your parents and siblings?
Minnie: Well, it was eight of us in one house. Both parents were on drugs and alcohol. That was difficult because as a kid you don’t know how to deal with it if you don’t know how to go out and get your own money to buy food and clothes and stuff like that. We’re still in contact with [my] mom. Our dads aren’t around.
Beatrice: I’m close with all of my brothers. We’re all best friends to an extent [except] my little brother. He’s my child. No one can tell me any different. My mom passed in 2010, and my dad, hopefully he’s dead somewhere. Hopefully. It sounds mean but it’s better that way. Growing up with my siblings, we just never had anything. My dad would always steal stuff. He’d go to jail. Come home. Do the same thing. It was a routine I guess. We were used to it, ‘Oh, dad’s home.’ We’re happy for a day, and then ‘There goes the food stamps.’ Like Minnie said, when you’re a kid you don’t really realize what’s going on until you get older and then you [think], wow. I dealt with that?
Eileen: When [her] dad wouldn’t come home, Beatrice would go and find the website for Westchester County Corrections and see who got arrested the night before and who was placed in the jail. That’s how she knew where her father was. You’re trying to get an education, finish Regents and everything, and this one is trying to find out where [her family] is.
Beatrice: But I still passed my Regents.
Were either of you ever at risk at having your family split up?
Beatrice: My family was split up.
Minnie: Mine, too.
Were you able to come back together, at least with your siblings?
Minnie: Not really. We all talk. I wouldn’t say all of us. Some of us talk still, but we have not really lived in one house in years.
Beatrice: I’m the same way.
Eileen: They had to experience the foster care system.
Beatrice: I did foster care. My brothers went to group homes. My brother did foster care at one point with me.
What was your experience like in foster care?
Beatrice: (Laughter) The first [foster mother], she moved to Highland Falls and left me in Yonkers. She wouldn’t give me money to eat. The only time she’d give me money is when I said, “Hey, I want to go to the club,” and she[‘d say], “My girl, yes.” Send me money to buy clothes and stuff only for the club. For school or food? No. She didn’t care too much.
In that situation did you come to Eileen?
Minnie: We came to Eileen for everything.
During this time, you were a mentor at Brighter Futures mentoring?
Beatrice: Oh, at that time I was still working at the camp and everything.
Did you both start working at the camp at fourteen?
Eileen: They started earlier unofficially without getting paid.
Minnie: Since like 12. (Laughs)
Eileen: They wanted to help basically. They didn’t want to be a part of the group and be a kid. They had moved on because they had to grow up early in life, taking care of their younger siblings.
What drove you two to want to help out so much so early on?
Minnie: For me it’s the experience of not having, so I know what it was like to worry about food or how I felt, so that’s what motivates me to give back so much, so it can help someone else.
Beatrice: Same. I know what I went through, and I hate to see other people having to go through the same thing. If you can help, why not.
What has been the most rewarding part about being able to come back and work with the kids?
Beatrice: The smiles.
Minnie: The smiles.
Beatrice: Just to see them happy, having fun, doing things we couldn’t do when we were in their shoes. It’s great.
When you two look at the problems that you’ve experienced with your life, that your parents have experienced and your siblings have experienced, what do you wish would change on a policy level to help people like you?
Beatrice: The foster care system.
Eileen: They both had experiences with the foster care. Beatrice, which she hasn’t mentioned, when her mom passed away knew that her father couldn’t take care of the youngest son. So then she became the surrogate mother and like dropped her life for him but couldn’t go too far with it because of her age. No one was going to give her custody because she was under 18.
How much older are you than your little brother?
Beatrice: Let’s see. Six years.
That’s not a huge age difference if you’re trying to …
Eileen: No. No. But she would leave school, and I would tell her no, but she would leave anyway to go to all of his court appearances knowing her father wouldn’t make it.
Beatrice: His IEP [Individualized Education Plan meetings], everything.
Eileen: Every meeting she advocated.
Beatrice: That’s where we got caught, his last IEP [meeting]. They took us.
What do you mean caught?
Beatrice: My dad was gone for two months, and I wouldn’t let anyone know. I would just …
Eileen: He was in jail.
Beatrice: I would just go to school whenever my brother needed. Whatever needed to be done, I would do it, and this one particular meeting I couldn’t sit in for, and they [asked], “Where’s your dad?” I [said], “Oh, he’s at a program. He couldn’t miss it.” I made up a lie. They called the program and found out he was in jail. There was the beginning of foster care. It could be worse, though. It could always be worse.
What do you think helped you two be able to move on beyond your childhood and contribute back to this program?
Minnie: [Eileen] doesn’t let us dwell on the past. (Laughs)
Beatrice: Whenever I would think about it and get sad , Eileen [would say], “Okay, and if it didn’t happen, where would you be now?”
[I’ll say], “I need to go see a psychiatrist.” [She’ll say], “Okay, we’ll find one,” and then we’ll be on the way to the psychiatrist, and she’ll [say], “Are you okay? Everything will be fine.” She just helps with everything. The program just helped a lot. Without it, I would be lost.
Minnie: They had us in so many activities that we weren’t able to dwell on the bad things. They would take us on trips. They would make sure we have everything we need so we won’t be sitting at home thinking we don’t have clothes because our parents used up the money for drugs, stuff like that. Like [Beatrice’] said, Eileen would always be there no matter what. Even to this day. Anything we need, we can go to her and she’ll make sure we have it or the programs in Lifting Up Westchester.
Having each other as friends, has that helped you on your roads?
Beatrice: Plenty of times, if I’m short with anything, and I say, “Hey, Minnie. You got me? I’m a little short.” If Minnie got it, I got it, and vice versa.
Minnie: Not just with money. With advice. Beatrice would do a lot of stupid things. We always have each other’s backs because we were close growing up. Our moms were best friends. They were in the shelter for over ten years together, so [Beatrice] was a little sister, so I always had to make sure she was okay like my real sister. So that grew the friendship closer and closer. We had our days where we didn’t like each other but at the end of the day…
Beatrice: At the end of the day we’re family.
Minnie: …we’re family, and what we’ve been through will always keep us together.
What do you want to have in your future? What are your dreams?
Beatrice: I want to be a physical therapist for the NFL. Big goals. I know. Eventually I want to get married and have kids, start a family of my own and just be a better parent than my parents were.
Minnie: Just a stable job to take care of myself, whatever that may be. A place to sleep comfortable and one day have a family.
Do you feel like you’re on the way there, or do you feel like there are still a lot of obstacles ahead?
Beatrice: Or both. (Laughs)
Minnie: I feel like there’s a lot of obstacles, but nothing’s going to stop me.
Beatrice: I want to work. I want to finish school first, and in the process of finishing school I need to get a ring on my finger and then worry about the kids and all that other good stuff. Ring and degree come neck-and-neck, and then kids can come later on.
Eileen: These two have an interesting relationship because they’re different extremes. Beatrice will try everything and fails a lot and then start with something else. She went to vocational school. She went to college. She’s tried them out. She wasn’t ready at that stage, whereas Minnie is very steady. She knows what she wants and she stays in that one direction, and she’s not going to deviate. So they’re a good mix for each other because they’re so opposite. But the one thing they have in common is that they have huge hearts, and they will never forget where they came from and they will always fight for the underdog.
Beatrice: That bothers me sometimes because, why am I such a good person but such bad things happen?
Minnie: Me too, but you got to keep being good. One day you’ll get something.
Is there anything you want to say about your lives or your experiences with this program that you felt you haven’t got a chance to say or won’t get a chance to say?
Minnie: I would tell people to be grateful for what they have because a lot of people in this world don’t have much and don’t have the opportunities that they have. Even a lot of my friends and stuff, I see the opportunities that they have that I wasn’t given as a kid or even as an adult, and they take it lightly. It’s difficult.
Beatrice: Doesn’t it frustrate your soul?
Minnie: Mm-hm. But I would just tell them to be grateful.
Beatrice: That sounds right. I’m stealing Minnie’s answer.