Family Caregiver of the Year Award Nominee: Darlene James

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Family Caregiver of the Year Award Nominee: Darlene James

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Nominated by: Lisa-Erika James

Tell us about the nominee's caregiving story.
The caregiving journey of my beloved mother, Darlene Lanette James, is a love story.

Ms. James was born in Savannah, Georgia and moved up north during the Great Migration of African Americans; in order to escape the segregated Jim Crow south.

My grandfather, her father, was offered a job as a sanitation worker in the Midwest and he and his wife packed their belongings, along with their two small children at the time, and headed to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

I learned, through the tradition of our familial strong oral history that has been passed down from generation to generation; her former school teachers, as well as church community friends, that my mom was always incredibly helpful from a very young age. My great-grandmother from Savannah imparted the notion of the importance of taking care of our own, well before “caregiving” was a formal classification.

In the early sixties, my mother was a senior in high school and my grandmother had a health crisis while carrying her fourth and last child. My grandmother’s illness resulted in my uncle, her brother, being born with a deformed leg. My uncle’s leg was so severely deformed that my grandmother’s medical team recommended that his leg be amputated and so it was. He was a child with an artificial leg, as we called it at the time. My grandmother was stricken with grief and blamed herself for the malady of her only son. My uncle adapted to his prosthesis as a child, yet this procedure sent my grandmother into a tailspin of depression. Powerful medications, as well as hospitalizations of my grandmother to help her recover during this delicate time, resulted in my mother becoming the surrogate mom to two toddlers, both my aunt and uncle who were 17 and 15 years her junior, respectively. My mother’s dream was to move to California to escape the brutal Midwestern winters and she sacrificed her dream in order to step in as the eldest daughter and committed to offering support—through her actions—for her mother, as well as her younger brother and sister.

Darlene Lanette James is a woman full of strength, passion, and verve and has a longstanding history of being in service to others. She is a trailblazing leader.

My mom was married at the age of 18 to her high school sweetheart and is still married to my dad now; Charles Louis James— 53 years later. My father honorably served in The United States Army as a medic during the Vietnam War. After his tour was completed, mom began to work at Ford Motor Company on the assembly line, placing speedometers in vehicles, as well as making doors for automobiles. She was a staunch blue collar, labor rights activist and participated in her union (The UAW) for her entire tenure at the plant. When I was a little girl and we would see workers who were on strike, she taught me to never cross the picket line and to stand in solidarity with the blue-collar workforce. My mom toiled 12-hour workdays—sometimes seven days a week— in a boiling hot factory in order to put me through private Catholic schools. When I was young, I remember my mom conveying to me that the conditions in the plant were grueling, yet she persisted for 35 years, which is when she decided to retire. Placing me in these schools afforded her only child more opportunities than she had growing up. Additionally, she made it clear that she didn’t want me to work in a plant on “the line.” Consequently, she drilled it in my head that education would extend me more options in life and to that end, she enrolled me in Spanish language classes from a very young age and it is due to her that I am now fluent in Spanish and have traveled abroad to Spain to strengthen my bilingual skills.

My mom wanted me to be exposed to many different cultures which has given me a broad worldview as an adult African-American woman.

This is one of a plethora of examples in which my mother sacrificed her needs in order to help support her family. As a retiree, my mother realized that she was interested in childhood education and now works as a teacher’s assistant for severely Autistic children throughout the Washtenaw Intermediate School District in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Mom has a passion for learning about Autism and then implementing what she has learned from her research into best practices in the classroom. Ironically her work with children with severe physical limitations enabled her to transfer the strategies executed in her classroom to me when I suffered from a serious injury.

In 2012, I fell on a broken step in my apartment complex and had to have two major knee surgeries. I was unable to walk and my mom promptly explained to her school that she was going to take a leave of absence because she needed to be with her daughter. She then packed up her bags and moved into my tiny New York City apartment. She graciously cooked, cleaned, and scheduled all of my medical appointments, plus she stayed with me all the way through my physical therapy, until I recovered and could walk normally again.

Three years later, the calamitous tragedy hit our home. 2015 was a brutal time for my entire family. In May, my parents were going to bed when my dad explained he wasn’t feeling well. My mom physically held him up while he took ill and she insisted that he go to the emergency room to be checked by a physician. My dad resisted but my mom persisted—which was miraculous because it turned out that my dad went into complete renal failure. What my dad dismissed as indigestion, my mom’s strong intuition and advocacy saved him from dying on his birthday. He was on life-support for one week and she never left his side in the hospital and helped nurse him back to health while he recovered at home.

Then in August, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 43 years old. Beyond the shock of the diagnosis, I had to have two lumpectomies, a double mastectomy, two breast reconstruction surgeries, and a complete hysterectomy. I am a New York City Public high school teacher and was unable to work for 24 months while I recovered in between surgeries, treatment, and recovery. My mother’s strength during that awful time was stellar and unparalleled. I was barely able to lie in my bed due to the extensive drains and the excruciating pain that I was in. My mom and dad moved in with me temporarily from Michigan to Harlem both during my surgeries, as well as intermittently throughout the entire recovery period.

Another critical aspect of my mother’s caregiving story is this: In 2018, my grandmother, who was 95 years old passed away. My mother was loyal, consistent, committed and by her side, as her mother battled the ugly disease of Dementia. My grandmother required care twenty-four hours a day. I watched as my mom tirelessly used her voice to champion my grandmother’s cause to her physicians, as well as to her hospice care specialists.

There is a West-African proverb that says: “It takes a village to raise a child.”

This sentiment is also true when caring for a loved one. My mother is very perceptive and knows what is necessary to provide excellent care for her family. She sits with her loved ones in silence when sometimes there is no need to talk. Moreover, she holds the hands of her loved ones and gives her signature kiss on the forehead, gently, when her loved one drifts off to sleep.

Equally important, my mother also took care of my grandmother’s sister, Gussie Mae Ervin. My maternal grandparents migrated North and once they were settled, they sent for my Aunt Gussie so that she could live with them until she was able to save enough money to move her family into a home of their own home. My mom had a very strong bond with my Aunt Gussie because she helped to raise my mother and as a result of that deep connection; my mother treasured dear aunt Gussie and held her close in her heart.

As an example, when my aunt Gussie was looking for a job, my mother attained employment for her at Ford Motor Company. Aunt Gussie worked there until she retired. Moreover, when aunt Gussie retired, my mother enlisted the entire plant to help her throw a huge surprise party and luncheon. My mother promoted women’s rights and spoke up about their value and worth within the auto industry which was dominated by men.

This is what makes my mom so special— she wants everyone to win and to be the best versions of themselves and lends a hand to assist with that process.

Lastly, my mom gifted my aunt with a trip to Hawaii to celebrate all of her years of employment.

In conclusion, I look up to my mother. She is my role model for the fire in her eyes and the warmth that her benevolence and generosity engenders.

To say that my mom is a caregiver is an understatement. Darlene Lanette James is an unsung beautiful, protective, powerful, humble, modest, exuberant African-American woman who deserves this special recognition.

My mother is incredibly private and shy and runs away from any sort of acknowledgment. She never looks for accolades. She is a woman of enviable faith and feels that it is an extreme blessing to provide unconditional love for those around her. I am determined to shift the narrative of my mom being unrecognized for all that she has contributed to so many. I want to honor my mother by nominating her not only to receive the acknowledgment and accolades that she deserves but also to give us— her family and friends— the chance to celebrate her with this esteemed honor from Caregiving.com.

How does the nominee complement his or her caregiving responsibilities with their own needs and interests?
One of the ways that my mother, Darlene Lanette James, complements her caregiving responsibilities with her own needs and interests is by spending quality time with her best friend, Cora Hargrow. Ms. Hargrow and my mom attend the same church and bonded when Ms. Hargrow lost her youngest son to senseless gun violence in the early eighties. The two of them have been inseparable ever since this tragedy struck for Ms. Hargrow and her family. My mother is a fantastic friend because she nurtures the relationship through giving thoughtful gifts that she loves to curate, but she is unique most of all because she graces those she loves with the most valuable present, her presence and time.

Their sisterhood is a beautiful example of the power of women connecting and thriving together despite the storms that life can present.

My mother and her best friend venture off on a weekly basis together to explore new local restaurants in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area and use the time together of girls’ nights out to discuss local and national politics. My mom loves to watch “The View” and then talk about the hot topics discussed on the show with our family. My mother and Cora also enjoy going to Paint and Sip’s, where the guests paint a picture while sipping on a favorite non-alcoholic beverage of their choice. In addition, the two of them like to window shop at the local mall—Briarwood.

In addition, my mom is very involved with St. Paul Missionary Baptist church, her place of worship for over three decades. The church is a special and sacred sanctuary because my grandfather—her dad— was the Associate Pastor there for his entire adult life until his passing. My mom loves to teach Sunday school to children from the ages of 4-17 every Sunday at Children’s Church and prepares the Bible lessons with great attention to detail on Saturday evenings.

Furthermore, my mom loves to unwind and go to breakfast at Bob Evans with my dad on Saturday mornings. She also enjoys daily walks at the beautiful Huron Valley Park, embracing the foliage from which Ann Arbor derives its name. She keeps fit by participating in the local fitness center’s water aerobics. My darling mother loves to read her favorite magazines; Jet, Ebony, Essence, Architectural Digest and Home and Gardens. She has a knack for horticulture and loves to garden and landscape her house.

Besides that, she also has a long-standing hobby of interior decorating, which brings her deep satisfaction and is a way that she expresses her creativity.

In closing, my mother believes in the power of reaching out for support to take care of her mind, body, and soul by going to counseling in order to process the stressors that she has had to endure while serving others, selflessly, as a caregiver, friend, daughter, wife, and mother.

Tell us about the nominee's problem-solving techniques.
When there is a crisis, my mother is unbelievably resolute with her support and shows up abundantly for those in our family, as well as in the community, who may be in need of her assistance.

She is a woman of otherworldly faith and her prayer life is very important to her. When the storms of life seem insurmountable, she surrenders her concerns to her Creator and through her fervent prayer life, she constantly has a sense of clarity that engenders her adeptness to implement, plan and organize systems and schedules for whatever is happening. For instance, as the eldest in the family, my mom is a real leader in the family who created the scheduling of my grandmother’s care and she coordinated her siblings into day and night shifts plus built-in breaks to balance the awesome responsibility of taking care of an aged parent. She pours into whatever scheduling conflicts arise through her copious planning. She builds strength through her empathetic listening skills and she is gifted at making family members feel important and included in family meetings. As an example, she is the executor of my grandmother’s estate and was also her power of attorney. With every single decision that had to be made she never acted without consensus from her siblings. When there was a conflict or a bit of tension; rather than react, my mom chose to respond. “Respond as opposed to react” is a technique that she learned through her meditation practice.

Moreover, my mother’s work as a teacher’s assistant enables her to have extremely sharp listening skills in order to prevent her autistic students from injuring themselves. She also collaborates with the classroom teacher to design activities in order to keep her students’ engaged. My mother also has the uncanny ability to anticipate an unforeseen worrisome situation that may arise. Therefore, her problem-solving techniques have been instinctive and inherent due to her faith. They have become more refined, developed and strengthened through life’s circumstances and experiential learning from being in the classroom.

How does the nominee use online resources or community services?
My mother was seriously techno-phobic for years and years. Now at the fantastic age of 72 years old, with some gentle prodding from me and my other family members, she has been learning how to use and integrate technology into her life more. She uses email and loves to browse on eBay.

Furthermore, she reads the latest research about the Autistic community on many websites, but one that she reads all of the time is called: The Interactive Autistic Network. She also has learned how to read her favorite Bible scriptures and inspirational reading materials online. In addition, my mother facilitated therapy-after my grandmother passed away- for both she and her siblings as they grieve the loss of their mother- my grandmother.

Lately, she has been learning more and more about self-care on websites such as AARP Black Community, which helps the community celebrate life as one ages and gives helpful advice on ways to move through life as a senior citizen.

When my grandmother was alive, my mother sent out group text messages to her siblings in order to communicate the needs of her convalescing mother.

My mother realizes that I am not too keen on long phone conversations and that I am a big texter. In an effort to learn my language, she has made great strides with her smartphone, as she now texts all of the time, even incorporating emojis into messages.

Also, my mother is taking baby steps learning what Podcasts are and has expressed interest to me to learn more. It is has been an honor and a delight to teach as well as learn with my mom new advances in technology.
My mother has learned to read her favorite newspapers and magazines online in an effort to save the environment by using fewer paper products, which is something she learned while working as a teacher’s assistant.

Finally, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my mother found a local licensed therapist and enlisted my dad to go to family counseling to process the fact that her daughter was battling a life-threatening illness. My mother also uses the invaluable resource of her pastor who prays with her and she participates in prayer line meetings from time to time with members of her family and with members of the local community.

How does the nominee remain involved in his or her community (including online)?
My mother is extremely involved in her community. She teaches “Children’s Church” at St. Paul Missionary Baptist church where she leads Sunday school to the children from the church community. She donates clothes and toys to children in the community during the holidays.

Once there was a local businessman who was viciously attacked by criminals who wanted to rob his store. My mother, along with many people in Ann Arbor, came to check on him to make sure that he was healing both physically and mentally. The whole city rallied together, communicated and mobilized online-discussing ways to stand in solidarity in order to support him and his wife. My mother was one of the citizens who extended her love and prayers and action to him and to his family by stopping by his business several times a week to make sure that they were safe. My mother learned to be civically engaged from my grandmother who was a Civil Rights activist, writer and staunch advocate for children in Ann Arbor with Muscular Dystrophy. My mom builds strength through empathy, laughter, prayer, nourishing friendships, loving-kindness with her family and for those who are less fortunate. My mom also takes classes in Continuing Adult Education for senior citizens at Washtenaw Community College. Additionally, my mom played a very active role in the Neighborhood Watch organization in our subdivision and was involved with the Ann Arbor Police Benevolent Association.

Lastly, mom is locally “famous” for her down-home delicious southern Thanksgiving dinners. She loves hosting this annual holiday dinner because she invites those who are less fortunate, college students whose families are far away, and those with no family at all in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area over to her home to fellowship, laughs, and have a hearty meal. She makes the best doggie bags ever!




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