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Circle of Women 2013: Mom and Daughter Blossom Together

By YWCA of Minneapolis
May 22, 2013
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Stephanie Gerster and her three-year-old daughter Katy love the YWCA Early Childhood Education program for very different reasons. Stephanie appreciates the diversity of staff and families, as well as the stability the program has provided on her journey to become a single parent and for support as she navigates ongoing health issues. Katy loves her teachers, the field trips and especially all the creative projects that involve finger painting or dancing to music in the Rainbow classroom.

My name is Stephanie and I’m a 45-year-old project manager at a creative firm in Minneapolis. I’m also a single mom to my daughter, Katy, who is three years old and enrolled at the YWCA Children’s Center in downtown Minneapolis.

In 2009, before I adopted Katy from Ethiopia, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thankfully, my prognosis was excellent. There was less than a 5% chance that my cancer would recur. While going through treatment, I re-evaluated my life and knew it was time to live my dream. Plain and simple, I wanted to be a mother. No more waiting for Prince Charming, and I decided to adopt. But I quickly learned it wasn’t going to be easy for a single woman in her 40s with a history of cancer.

Thank goodness I found a program in Ethiopia, a country rich in culture and with many immigrants and adoptive families in Minnesota. It took two years of paperwork, background checks, home visits and waiting until I finally saw my first picture of sweet Katy. Her name was Hewan and she was 14 months old. Remarkably, she shared her birthday with my mother, whom she would eventually be named after. I was so excited and very nervous.

When I first met Katy in Ethiopia in 2011, I expected love at first sight, because that’s what everyone told me would happen. Instead, I saw a bright, smiling, beautiful, little girl — who didn’t feel like mine. She loved the nannies at the orphanage, and she wasn’t too sure about me. My dream of being a mother was becoming real and it was awesome and, at the same time, scary.

Our transition to Minneapolis — and my introduction to parenting — was a rocky road. To say we were a mess is an understatement. I will be forever grateful for my neighbors who took those 2:00 am panic phone calls and came right over to calm us both down. I just wanted to “get it right” without having to ask for help, but also realized people were there for us and willing to help.

I learned about the YWCA Early Childhood Education Program from friends and from attending this Circle of Women event. Years ago, I sat in the same seats you’re sitting in today. I remember leaving these events feeling that the programs these women spoke of were much more than just a place to bring your kids while at work. It seemed like the YWCA was a place that built strong kids and strong families. So when it came time for me to return to work and find child care for Katy, I called the YWCA.

Katy was 21 months old when she enrolled and was behind in her motor skills and language development. She was not yet walking or talking. Her new teachers agreed that it was important to place her in with her peers instead of in a younger classroom, even though she had a lot of catching up to do. This way she could watch and model the other kids her same age. I was impressed that they were so mindful of Katy’s needs and of all the transitions she’d had in her short life, and they wanted to help simplify her transition to the YWCA. For the first few months, Katy got a seat at the table right next to her teacher, who patiently helped her with meals and also throughout the day.

I remember being so amazed at the team of diverse and skilled teachers and support staff. Katy worked with speech and occupational therapists, as well as many loving and dedicated classroom teachers. I’m not sure who was more excited when Katy started walking — me or her teachers! I could see that Katy was having a great time and catching up more each day. Katy wasn’t the only one learning and growing. I could talk with the teachers and they would assure me I was doing a good job as a mom. And it was good to have feedback!

Gradually, both Katy and I were growing more comfortable in our new roles and routines.

In November 2011, only four months after Katy came into my life, I was diagnosed again with cancer — this time, Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. It was devastating. I knew that not only would I be fighting for my life, but for Katy’s as well.

Above all, I needed to know that her rollercoaster life wouldn’t be disrupted again. I had a lot of support at home from family and friends and from the great staff and friends at the YWCA.

Katy stayed in class every day while I took off work for several months to manage all the doctors, drugs and crappy side effects of treatment.

Today, my cancer is stable and, hopefully, will be for a long time. It is a reality that I live with every day. Most importantly, I know that Katy is building a solid foundation that will make her strong and confident for whatever lies ahead in her life.

Katy is a happy and spunky girl. The YWCA has been a huge part of that. Watching Katy blossom and knowing that we’re not alone means the world to me. I love that we can walk down the hall and the staff all know her name. And now, she can say their names too!

I love that she was so proud the day she could walk by herself to the front desk and give Fines his high-five. I smile when I think that one of her first words was “Ciao,” which is the greeting we get from Na’il every evening when we leave. Which only works if you do the hand part too. So with that I say, “Ciao Ciao!” Thank you very much.

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