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Mothers and Children Connect Through Reading
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Sharon Cash works with mothers and children recovering from homelessness, substance use, domestic violence, or mental health issues at Renewal Place in Memphis, Tennessee. She shares her own story of recovery and how it has enriched her work. Sharon highlights how two programs, Family Time and Book Club, help foster literacy, mother-child bonding, and healthy family relationships.

“Somewhere along my own path in recovery, my heart desired to work with women and children struggling with substance use and homelessness. I knew the experience from my own life,” says Sharon Cash, Program Director at Renewal Place, a transitional housing program for women who are homeless, addicted, and have children. It is a program of the Salvation Army, Memphis, Tennessee.

“I was an alcoholic by the age of eleven, and a mother by the age of fourteen. My son is now 38 and he has two children that I am raising. I represent the journey for the women I work with,” says Sharon. In her first year of recovery, Sharon transitioned from working in a dress shop to working for the Memphis Recovery Centers. A customer introduced her to the Executive Director of these centers. He was not a man in recovery himself. When Sharon asked him why he did this work, he responded that it was the only workplace he knew where he could witness a miracle every day.

Sharon was sent to school by her employers to become a licensed addictions counselor. Eventually she became a therapist, and has been at Renewal Place for nine years.

Renewal Place works with women who have at least one child. Sharon cites multiple reasons that women with children come to Renewal House, including domestic violence, addiction, homelessness, and mental illness. She emphasizes that alongside working with mothers, it is imperative to reach their children, as well as to address the trauma of homelessness and exposure to substance use. The program seeks to nurture mothers and children so that they may function together as a healthy family. Case managers on site address the needs of both mothers and children.

Renewal Place has 45 beds for women. The program works closely with the school system, especially to share knowledge on facilitating healthy parenting in families living with the experiences of trauma.

Renewal Place offers one year of support after families have transitioned out of their program and always offers an open door for any family requiring additional support to stabilize. “We are teaching women how to live in reality and how to be able to remain drug-free in a healthy and nurturing way. Being a healthy mom means you have to learn to take care of yourself as well as your children. We help women to develop rituals of healthy behaviors that will serve them long after they leave Renewal House,” says Sharon. They teach financial literacy, relationship skills, relapse prevention, and offer space to explore spirituality.

Currently, Sharon and the women at Renewal Place are working with researcher Laurie MacGillivray from the College of Education at The University of Memphis to offer weekly Book Club circles with the mothers in the program. The program promotes literacy.

Book Club developed out of the program’s “Family Time,” the hour after school ends which is reserved for mothers and children to connect in the program’s community space. “We initially noticed that moms would be on one side of the room and children would be on the other. Many mothers had so much guilt and shame about their past and found themselves immobilized. Many moms do not know how to embrace their children when they arrive here. We worked to find a way to teach healthy bonding skills,” says Sharon.

As mothers learned to relax and lean into the reading and family time, children who had been bouncing off the walls, started responding with calm. “It became a time of intimacy that our families had never experienced before,” says Sharon. “We now witness mothers who are proud of who they are. Mothers will announce to the room, ‘I’m gonna read now y’all!’ The women in the program have grown to honor reading, discussing books with each other, and sharing reading with their children.

Sharon shares that she watches the women at Renewal Place develop knowledge of their children’s desires and intellectual capacities. They are more involved in their children’s development.

“I have seen that Book Club and Family Time have been as effective as any relapse prevention program we have,” says Sharon. “To empower women and children to know the power of words is one of the greatest gifts we can give. It transcends time, space, and generations. To introduce the pleasure of reading offers the power of normalcy. It is healing for women to learn that they have the patience, tolerance, and eventually the desire to read in recovery. For me, a person I recommend a book to becomes precious to me,” says Sharon.

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