She sat at the bottom of the stairway, holding a sign that read, “Pregnant and Homeless.”
As cars rushed past and fumes swirled around her, she cried. I saw the tears and stopped.
I had an hour before my event started. I had planned to give myself my typical Seattle indulgence — walk along the waterfront, stop in the shops, sign my books, make the shop owners happy and then leave with my ego thoroughly stroked.
And, as long as there was no child around, mine or anyone else’s, it could stay stroked.
She kept crying, though and I noticed that she was barely 17. In small print her sign said, “Can you help me get home?” Just that week a young woman I worked with had an abortion.
This news hit our workplace hard. A fellow co-worker and I could not stop grieving for our friend’s lost baby and for the struggles that led her to make such a heartbreaking decision.
As I knelt down beside this sobbing girl, though, all that frustration and anguish melted away. If my co-worker and I could not save the life of one baby, the least we could do was help another.
The only problem – in Seattle I didn’t know where to send her.
In Port Orchard, I knew. I would send her to Lynne. Lynne would take care of her, like she had all the countless others I sent her way. Lynne would get her fed and off the streets. She’d find her support and a pillow for her head, if one existed.
I could trust Lynne with any young woman in need. Lynne Kerkes was a former co-worker, a certified WIC clerk with a heart of gold. Someone who loved WIC, but who loved the moms it helped even more.
WIC for those who are allergic to TLA’s or three letter acronyms, stands for Women, Infants and Children – a federally subsidized nutrition program started in 1974.
The year when pediatricians appealed to Congress, pleading with legislators to create a new program that would address all the health concerns they saw in their patients.
Lynne saw WIC as a lifeline, not just as a place to go for food and nutrition counseling.
She saw it as a place to offer a loving touch, a place that could have helped her so much had it existed earlier, a place that could possibly have saved her fourth baby’s life.
You know Lynne. Yes, you do.
Even if you have never needed the services of this particular USDA program, even if you have never gone downtown and walked into Lynne’s office, you know her. She’s every woman.
She’s everywhere. She’s the woman who waited on you in that truck stop, the one who called you “Honey” and “Sweetie.”
She’s the one who rings up your groceries at the supermarket, the one who always smiles and makes small talk. She’s the person who looks at the pictures of your grandchildren, the one who seems genuinely interested in their beauty.
You know Lynne. She’s the person who gives and gives and gives and never grows tired. She’s the one whose first husband beat her until she left him and went off to raise her kids on her own. She’s the one who will tell you, marveling all the while, that they came out well, in spite of it all.
You knew they would, because you know Lynne.
She’s the person who could have used WIC so many times over, starting when she herself was a baby. She’ll tell you that no one knows the exact date of her birth and that her birth parents could never be tracked down in spite of her searching for 28 years.
The only thing known is that she was left in the month of June in the year of 1943 and that her birth mother must have been very afraid.
If that was the only reason that Lynne feels a kinship to young and frightened mothers, it may be enough, but it wouldn’t make a good story, nor tell the one that Lynne carries.
No, the real story is even harder and sadder. Lynne’s eyes mist over as she explains. She was 15 when she got pregnant for the first time, 15 years old and scared, but her folks took it OK.
They didn’t seem to mind much at all, which surprised her. One day, in fact, they invited her out to a special dinner. Only, when they left their home in Tacoma, they kept driving and driving until they dropped her off at a home for unwed teenagers down in Portland. There they had her sign the papers to turn her baby over for adoption.
She pleaded with them. They told her that, “if you keep that baby, don’t bother coming home.”
She placed her little boy, Mitch, up for adoption, vowing to find him in 18 years.
In the meantime, her boyfriend at home, David, waited for her. He got her pregnant again the next year. This time the couple ran off and got married. He joined the Navy and they moved away.
He would complain as he beat her that he couldn’t touch her without her getting pregnant.
She had three more babies before she reached 19, John and then Dale and finally Dean.
Her husband beat her a lot when she was pregnant with Dean, telling her over and over how much he didn’t want her or the baby. She remembers leaving the house, pregnant and bruised with her two young sons to call her adopted mother from a pay phone. She remembers her mother’s words, “You married him, you live with him,” before hearing the phone click off on the other end.
She remembers how abandoned and alone she felt and how scared. Years later she would see herself in every young woman who walked into the WIC office. Her, “Here you go, Honey,” “take care, Sweetie,” were always for them and always sincere.
I loved working with her.
Sometimes we’d make it a game, see how many “walk-ins” we could squeeze into the schedule. Lynne, unlike so many of our other co-workers, would never turn away a walk-in.
Sometimes it would have made sense to do that, to ask someone to come back later so you could take a break.
She never would. Not, if there was someone who needed to be seen.
She would always ask a lot of questions. She’d marvel at the young women who breastfed and the training we gave them.
“If only I had that,” she’d say.
She’d ask me about nutrition for infants and small children.
She craved that information, craved the knowledge and support that came after she had her babies.
She craved the answer to why Dean died. She wanted to know why her little boy starved to death.
She blamed herself, blamed her ignorance and her frailty.
But, if she lost one baby, she saved countless more. She connected their mothers to all the support she never found. She gave them information on MSS or Maternity Support Services, a First Step program designed to link a pregnant mother with a public health nurse.
She passed along vital resource information for other agencies, like St. Vincent de Paul and Celebrate Life.
She passed out WIC checks and taught them how to use them. She handed out vouchers for fresh produce at the Farmers Market. She gave them directions.
She did it all as a struggling reader, someone who suffered from dyslexia.
She worked hard to understand the computer system and its frequent upgrades, mastering it for the young women who stood before her.
All the while she marveled that her own children grew into amazing and successful adults. She has wonderful relationships with them all, especially her baby daughter, born years after her brothers.
Lynne was preparing to co-sign a loan for this child, Jamie, to purchase a home. Just one more week and she would have made it, but she was coming up on a birthday, a nebulous day, sometime in June.
Officials at KCR, Kitsap Community Resources, didn’t mention her age when they took her away from a client one morning. They just said that she was making too many mistakes and that WIC didn’t need her services anymore. She countered every accusation with solid facts, but just like that, they made her clean out her desk.
No goodbyes to her clients, not a single chance to tell them that she didn’t just walk away.
That’s the thing that worries her the most. She doesn’t want her clients to think she abandoned them.
She knows, all too well, how that feels.
Mary Colborn is a Port Orchard resident.