Every morning, Kiki Shardae wakes up at 4:45 a.m. with her 3-month-old daughter. By 6:30, the day is in full swing. Getting her infant daughter (Adalynn) and 8-year-old son (Julian) dressed for the cold is a time-consuming task but a vastly important one. Her dying car doesn't have heat. You don't have to tell Kiki what a Pennsylvania winter without heat is like — she's lived in houses without it and knows how dangerous it can be, especially for an infant.
The old car has 20 minutes of life at a time before it starts to overheat, and once it does that, Kiki isn't sure it can be revived. It's at least enough time to get Kiki and Julian to school and the baby to day care. Her partner will take the bus to work. If the car manages to start up, Kiki will take it to work after class. If it doesn't, she'll take the bus and pray the car won't be towed. There's no way she could afford to get it back if it did.
Come tax time, the family will look for a new car, something that Kiki describes as a "maddening cycle." The only kind of car they can afford is a junker, and it won't be long until it dies, too, but it will get them just over the next hump. This kind of hanging on, of holding ends together until it becomes feasible to get just a slightly better grip, is quite literally the story of her life.
Kiki lives in Reading, Pennsylvania, which was dubbed "The Poorest City in America" when the 2010 census revealed that it had the highest share of citizens living in poverty in the nation. The federal poverty line for a family of four is $23,850 and when I asked Kiki where she fell in relation to that number, she snorted.
"Last year I made $8,000."
It isn't for lack of trying or work ethic, but for opportunities that Kiki, her partner and her two children continue to struggle. Jobs can be scarce — and even harder to come by without a reliable means of transportation. Both she and her partner work and go to school simultaneously, taking double shifts every weekend with one end goal in mind: to keep history from repeating itself. Her greatest fear is that a single financial crisis will cause her to lose her children. She wants out.
For eight years, she was out. But when her grandmother, who served as her guardian during childhood, was diagnosed with cancer, Kiki wanted to be near the woman who raised her, but the city she loved as a child wasn't the same. In some ways, she says, the skyrocketing number of people who are homeless or hopelessly addicted to one substance or another is the most shocking change.
"Reading is the absolute worst place I've ever lived. Every single person seems like they came here to destroy the city. Everything I do, every class I go to, every shift I work, is to give my children a better life. They won't live like this."
Kiki says that the schools are crowded, but the teachers do their best with what they have. "Education is so important. I'm glad that they have that."
Happily, Kiki's grandmother is in remission, and so she feels OK with leaving again soon. "My grandmother is my parenting philosophy. She would do anything for her family. WWGD? That's my parenting style. When I need to make a decision, I try to think of what she would do. She would leave, if she had to."
I asked Kiki if there was anything else that she had to say about raising a child in Reading. She seems tired, but optimistic.
"This is no place to raise children. Unfortunately, it will continue to happen. It just won't be my kids raised here."
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