Lending a helping hand

Aug 18, 2017

Antionette Taylor had a serious case of wanderlust. She dreamed of going to London, or maybe New Delhi.

For nearly two decades, in addition to working full time and raising her son as a single mom, she had been her family’s go-to caretaker. When her father died in November and her son graduated from high school, she decided maybe it was finally time to splurge and book a flight.

“I thought, I’m not having to take care of anybody,” said Taylor, who works for Marriott. “I’m going to travel.”

Those travel plans were short-lived. Before Taylor could pack a suitcase, she received a call informing her that one of her relatives could no longer take care of her four children, ages 6, 4, 2 and 1. CPS wanted to know: Will you take them? In January, Taylor again found herself in the role of caretaker.

“It really was an adjustment, because they’re small kids,” said Taylor, 44. “Changing a diaper, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m doing this again?’”

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Transitioning from a household of two — Taylor and her 18-year-old son — to a household of six presented some logistical and financial issues. Their duplex only has two bedrooms, so Taylor relocated to the living room so the four siblings could share her room. She also had to purchase a bigger car that could carry them all safely. Home repair issues, such as a broken fence and a lack of storage space, started to take center stage.

Quentin Taylor adds old wooden fencing to a trash pile during a cleaning day for his sister, Antionette Taylor, on July 30. NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: American-Statesman Staff

Because Taylor is related to the children, she is considered a kinship placement and does not receive all the benefits, including a monthly stipend, that certified foster families do. Instead, she had to adjust to caring for six people on her same two-person income.

That’s when Upbring, a local foster care agency, and Northeast Community Church decided to join together to lend Taylor a hand.

“The idea of taking in four kids that are not yours but who you don’t want to have to split up was amazing to me,” said Courtney Nowakowski, missions director of Northeast Community Church. “The heart she had for keeping the kids together was probably the thing that resonated with me the most.”

Courtney Goudeau, center, lines up a screw while installing a play gym outside Antionette Taylor’s home. NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: American-Statesman Staff

On a recent Sunday morning, more than 30 volunteers from the church and Upbring descended on Taylor’s North Austin home to carry out tasks that included rebuilding the back fence, trimming the backyard, cleaning the house, baby-proofing, clearing out closets and constructing an outdoor play structure for the kids. The church, which had a $650 budget for Taylor’s home refresh, also provided Jimmy John’s for lunch. In addition to making her home safer, the updates will help Taylor pass a home study with Upbring that will allow her to become a certified foster home. Once she is certified, she can receive additional benefits for the children.

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Taylor’s home refresh day came together after Nowakowski, who coordinates service projects for the church, reached out to Dan Zieschang, vice president of church and community relations at Upbring, looking for ideas after another service project fell through. Two weeks after Taylor’s name came up, church volunteers were at her house.

“What we’re hoping to do is bring these two together — Northeast Community Church and Antionette — and them take the relationship from here,” Zieschang said. “We’re building a relationship here today between the church community and someone who’s right down the street from where they worship.”

Throughout the day, laughter filled the air as volunteers made themselves at home with Taylor. There were some somber moments, too, including when Taylor, with the encouragement of church volunteers, finally built up the courage to clear out a closet filled with many of her deceased father’s possessions.

“On Sundays many people go worship and then just relax,” Taylor said. “For people to take their relaxing time and still work (at my house) is incredible.”

Ray Mason breaks up the ground so he can place a paver in Antionette Taylor’s yard. NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: American-Statesman Staff

By the end of the volunteer day, the fence was up, the house was clean, the electrical outlets were baby-proofed and the new play structure was ready for little hands and feet. Taylor said the updates will be a big help for four children still struggling to adjust to every new experience, whether it’s shopping at Dollar General or getting a treat — typically vanilla ice cream with sprinkles — at Baskin Robbins.

“They were so behind socially and, in a lot of ways, emotionally,” she said. “My doctor’s office did a donation drive and gave them a gift card to Toys R Us. With my own son, (a trip to) Toys R Us was two hours at least. With them, they got to one side and in 30 minutes they were done. They got so overwhelmed.”

Because the children’s CPS case is ongoing, Taylor likely won’t know the long-term plan for them until the end of the year at the earliest, but she said she would adopt all four if it becomes an option.

As for those former travel plans? Taylor has no regrets.

“They’re wonderful kids, and they just really need to know that they’re safe,” she said. “If I can do that, then it’s worth everything.”

Shontaye Bowman embraces Antionette Taylor during a cleaning day at Taylor’s North Austin home July 30. NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: American-Statesman Staff