For Melissa Meléndez, a typical day begins at 6 a.m. She wakes up her 10-year-old daughter, Le’Lah, and then, her eldest, Angeliyah. By 8 a.m. the sound of Disney Channel shows fills the kitchen while she cooks breakfast for her youngest, Ka’Talejah. Come afternoon, she’ll run errands and help her girls with homework before their family meal and bedtime. Then, it starts all over—the daily life of a busy mother.
Meléndez , born in the projects of Brooklyn, is a 13-year resident of West Village. She said, “Everyone’s always like, ‘Why West Village?’ and I’m like, ‘This is home.’” To an outsider—to residents, even—West Village looks like an institution. But within the confines, something is happening there.
When Meléndez first moved to West Village, she rebelled and was shipped back and forth from West Hill to the city. By 17, she was pregnant. “I saw what my mom was trying to do by moving us up here,” she said.
By 2008 Meléndez was a full-time student working two jobs. She dropped out of school in 2010 to take care of her children and has been a stay-at-home mom for two years now.
“I’ll be the first to say I’m the jack of all trades, master of none,” she said. “I can braid hair; I can bake; I can cook; I can do a lot of things. I just don’t have degrees or certificates to go behind everything I can do.” At 31 years old, Meléndez felt in a rut. “‘What do I want to do with my life?’” she had asked herself, “And then this happened.”
In October 2015 Meléndez founded, “Our Children’s Future,” a project to instill the sense of hope West Hill needs to break out of its stupor of isolation. In collaboration with West Village children, Meléndez and a number of other mothers have organized activities such has cooking lessons and community service trips.
“This is what makes our program unique,” said Meléndez. “We sit with the kids and ask them, ‘What do you guys want to do?’” She said that members meet every Monday at LACS and that they’re planning on having monthly parties and even a cotillion.
With the kids ranging in age from 2 years old to late teens, Meléndez said they’re trying to organize events for everyone—ScienCenter trips for the little ones, Rochester Museum of Play visits for the elementary school kids, and a college mentorship program for the high schoolers.
“So, I found my niche,” she said. “I want to make my community better. I want to give my children a safe place to live, and just because I’m on Section 8 or living in low-income housing, doesn’t mean my children don’t deserve that.”
Long-time resident Anisah Mohammed has been by Meléndez ’s side every step of the way. “Other mothers may drop out, but me and her—we’ve been stickin’ it through from the jump,” she said.
The children “look forward to people investing time in them,” Mohammed said. “There are a lot of people not investing in their children, and they are in need of people to invest in them. They need us to make them feel like people believe in them.”
Mohammed talked about the goals the “Our Children’s Future” mothers have for the West Village community. They want to rebuild the playgrounds and help the children grow a garden this spring. The project hasn’t officially received funding, but they’re working with Village at Ithaca to become a fiscal sponsor.
Both women credited Jamila Simon for her unwavering support. Simon, a New York State 4-H Civic Engagement Specialist at Cornell’s Bronfrenbrenner Center for Translational Research, has helped make it all happen. “Without Jamila’s help, we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we have,” Meléndez said. “She sees where we want to go and helps us make that happen.”
Simon ran an after-school program at West Village for five years. “Every time I would come here,” she said, “people would say to me, ‘How can you work at West Village Apartments?’ And I’d say, ‘How can you not?’”
The assumptions people make about poor families, Simon said, disguises the potential that these people have. “When people hear, ‘West Village,’ they’ve already discounted what you’re able to do, what you’re able to produce, and how you’re gonna interact with them. That’s something that I don’t want to have happen,” she said.
“That bias will direct everything that you do. At no point do I want families here to feel that they’re inferior,” Simon continued. “Everyone that I know is hard-working families, and that’s the message that I want to get across 110 percent. That’s the reason I was here for five years and continue to work in the community: because I believe in the families that live here, and everybody needs to have a fair chance.”
Meléndez and Mohammed both said that they’re tired of the stigma that the media keeps pinning on West Village as a place riddled with nothing but violence. They want people to know that their home is not a lost cause. It’s a rising village.
“We’re not what the media portrays us to be,” Meléndez said, “We’re hardworking moms, and hardworking moms doesn’t just mean we’re all out working. It means we’re holding households down with numerous kids, taking care of other people’s children so they’re able to go work. It’s not just a crime- and drug-infested area. There are a lot of good people here. There are a lot of great children here, and people think ‘West Village,’ and they don’t consider that.”
“It’s great that we’re doing this, but it shouldn’t have taken us this long. It should have been happening,” said Mohammed regarding the efforts she and Meléndez especially have been making. “We have the right-hand people who look out for us, but we want to be able to do it ourselves.”
“My children—meaning all of West Village—deserve a safe place. But the point I’m trying to get across to [police] Chief [John] Barber, Omni [New York, the owner of West Village], the Mayor [Svante Myrick]—is that we need help,” Meléndez said. Both women said the changes West Village needs, although already in the works, can only happen if people come together.
“I want them to know that we need help with change, but only from serious people who have the right intentions. These are our children. Our children deserve that,” Meléndez said.
Meléndez wants to go back to school to be an attorney. That always been a dream of hers. So she hopes to see parental involvement in “Our Children’s Future” swell in the hope that when the time comes, she can pass the torch.
“I’m hard. I’m from Brooklyn. I don’t want my kids to be what I was,” Meléndez said. “It takes a mom to say, ‘You’re not going to walk down the path I walked down,’ and if I can make that change, West Village can make that change.’”
“There’s a lot of people who don’t even acknowledge where they live because they don’t want to hear it,” Meléndez said. “Well, I … I live in West Village.” •