New York Times Neediest Cases

Raising 2 Young Children by Herself, in a Space That Feels Not Big Enough

In her cramped apartment in Upper Manhattan, Paola Infante cooked chicken and rice on a gas stove, stirring the meal as she kept an eye on her daughter, Geraliz, racing around the room. Each time the girl came near the flames and kitchen knives, Ms. Infante used her body to gently push her away.

Geraliz, who is 4 and has autism, eventually distracted herself watching children’s shows on a pink-covered iPad. For the moment, the possibility that she might get hurt had passed.

“So much nervousness,” Ms. Infante, 27, said in Spanish. “I wish for a bigger apartment with all of my soul. A separate kitchen, this is all I need.”

She added, “There’s been a lot of breaks and spills.”

Almost every surface in the small one-bedroom apartment doubles as a space for something else: pots and pans on top of magazines, children’s toys atop cleaning supplies and food wrappers. With no formal kitchen area, a gas stove, a refrigerator and cabinets line the 12-foot-by-15-foot living room’s back wall.

Ms. Infante, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic, is raising Geraliz and her 8-month-old son, Joshua, by herself. Geraliz communicates in screeches and tugs at her mother. Joshua was born with a deformed heart, but will not be healthy enough for heart-valve surgery until he turns 1 in April.

Ms. Infante said the children’s father, her former boyfriend, had moved out because he did not feel that he could cope with the challenges involved in raising Geraliz.

“He couldn’t handle it emotionally,” she said as she sat in one of the apartment’s only chairs, a tiny seat for her children. “It was too much for him to accept.”

During the day, Ms. Infante works as a cashier at a Key Food grocery store, earning $800 a month and struggling because of her limited ability to speak English to earn a promotion. She said she did not want to depend on public assistance but had to, collecting about $1,050 a month combined in food stamps and disability benefits.

At night, almost everything is a chore. While she prepares dinner or cleans the apartment, she tries to distract Geraliz with the iPad while hoping that Joshua does not start to cry. Doing the laundry meant lugging the dirty clothes to a laundromat two blocks away with the children in tow. To save money on drying, she would carry the wet clothes back to her fifth-floor walk-up and hang them on a line in the hallway leading into the apartment.

That cumbersome task was recently made easier. Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times’s Neediest Cases Fund, gave her $350 toward a $800 washing machine and helped to have it installed in her apartment. Ms. Infante still line-dries the clothes.

It has also become less stressful to make sure that her children are safe while she is at work. Catholic Charities guided Ms. Infante to enroll Geraliz at the Kennedy Child Study Center, an affiliate agency that provides free services for children with developmental challenges. Ms. Infante said her daughter was getting better at communicating and, with the help of workers at the center, had learned how to grab ahold of her when she needed attention.

The center also helped Ms. Infante enroll in English classes at the City College of New York, which start in February. She said she wanted to earn a bachelor’s degree in childhood education and get a job as a teacher within five years.

For those plans to work out, she will need to find a babysitter for Joshua by the time classes begin. The center is also helping her make those arrangements.

Ms. Infante said that her former boyfriend was still around. He lives in a separate apartment in Upper Manhattan, works at another grocery store and pays the rent on Ms. Infante’s place. He visits the children “once or twice a week” at their apartment, she said, but she is not ready to welcome him back full time.

“I don’t need anyone or anything,” she said, rising quickly to stir the rice and check on the chicken. “I’m fine. What I need is a separate kitchen so I can cook without worrying about the kids.”

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