Pamela Maxwell’s life has swerved between crises since she was a young teen. At 15, she was placed in juvenile detention for truancy and lost custody of her 2-year-old son to her home state of Arkansas. She never saw him again. At 21, she was incarcerated for armed robbery after being arrested in the company of the actual robber.
A crack cocaine user since she was 28, Maxwell was later jailed several times on drug charges. In 2010, she suffered a debilitating on-the-job shoulder injury and was evicted from her home for not paying rent. After that she became homeless.
Finally, because of Nia Imani Family Inc., Maxwell, now 52, has a chance to turn her life around. She is beating her addiction, furthering her education and contributing to her community as chair of Women of Hope, a fundraising and events committee at the shelter.
“Everything is not always peaches and cream but I’m living. And I’m living in a way that I didn’t allow myself in the past to live,” Maxwell said.
Nia Imani Family, the city’s only long-term transitional housing center for women and children, requires residents to participate in a demanding program designed to teach them to live independently.
“It’s volunteer. I only take residents who are willing to come into a program,” said Executive Director Belinda Pittman-McGee, who founded Nia Imani in 1994. Nia and Imani are Swahili words meaning purpose and faith—two of the seven principles of Kwanzaa.
There are 12 private apartments where families can live for up to two years. The ultimate goal is to prevent them from returning to homelessness and transiency, according to Pittman-McGee.
Like Maxwell, who was accepted into the program 15 months ago, most Nia Imani participants have struggled with homelessness, substance abuse, unemployment and educational deficiencies. Some also have mental health issues.
After one to two years, 70 to 75 percent of participants meet their goals, according to Pittman-McGee.
She attributes the program’s success to the curriculum she created, and to selecting women who are ready to work hard. She built the program on what some of her earliest participants told her they needed and on her knowledge of adult learning, acquired while working in outreach at UW Milwaukee.
“It works because the needs of the women, the things that they have to deal with in life on a day-to-day basis, are being addressed directly,” Pittman-McGee said.
Resident Breanna Davis moved into Nia Imani about two months ago. Twenty years old and pregnant with her third child, Davis had been moving from house to house with her children after the building she lived in was sold. The state took her 3-year-old daughter, Maya, when doctors diagnosed her with “failure to thrive.”
It turned out that Maya’s condition was caused by an intestinal defect she had at birth. After six months, a court battle and surgery for Maya, Davis regained custody. In the process, Maya’s social worker recommended Nia Imani to give the family more stability, Davis said.
Davis suffers from narcolepsy, a neurological sleep disorder, and has had difficulty getting a job. But she graduated from high school and would like to train as a certified nursing assistant. She hopes to find employment in the future.
“I like that Nia Imani is a family setting. If you need some help you’re not just on your own. They provide assistance but they also push you to be more independent,” Davis said.
The program acknowledges that some women will not be able to increase their income beyond the $673 monthly average provided by Wisconsin Works (W-2) to low-income parents of minor children. A fundamental part of Nia Imani’s program is teaching participants the nuts and bolts of how to live on such a limited income.
The women practice the skills they are taught. Participants must pay rent and utilities and buy food and other necessities. They learn to budget and shop, and if they fall short they must figure out where to cut expenses. They are required to set goals and create a schedule to meet them. They take their children to the school bus and meet them after school.
In addition to cooking, cleaning and maintaining their apartments, residents must participate in the upkeep of the building. In the evenings, they attend support groups and training classes in budgeting, nutrition, parenting, home maintenance and other problem-solving skills. Staff members design individual training for residents based on their specific needs.
Pittman-McGee emphasizes that Nia Imani is distinct from other programs that many of the women have been through repeatedly. It is a home and a place of practice, she explained. Partly to avoid an institutional atmosphere, the women are referred to outside agencies for counseling.
According to Pittman-McGee, “[Our participants] have never been in a program that holds them accountable for their actions; does not allow them to manipulate the system and get away with it; does not allow them to use this program as a crutch and make it a revolving door.”
Nia Imani, located at 1353 N. 25th St., is currently refurbishing its apartments. It is also developing an ambitious new program for first-time mothers ages 18 to 24. That program and an associated resource center are slated to open in February.
As for Maxwell, the thought of finishing the program next October is “kind of scary in a lot of ways” because she feels safe at Nia Imani, she said.
“I like the structure. I love the program. It has a lot of heart-filled meaning to me. This is like my home and family that I’ve grown to love and respect and I like being around,” she added.
Maxwell recently earned a High School Equivalency Diploma. She would like to pursue further study at a Bible college. In addition to setting a positive example for her six grandchildren, she hopes to assist others who are less fortunate.
“I want to be able to help people,” she said. “I want people to know that they’re not alone in the world even when they feel like they don’t have anybody or anything, and don’t feel as though they are adequate or worthy.”