Amori Patterson twirls and twirls. She bumps into the black futon by the front windows, stumbling and giggling for only a moment before bouncing around the living room once more. Her older sisters laugh at her, before turning their attention back to a pile of dominoes on the stained carpet.
“She moves around ’cause she don’t get to move around in school,” says Brenda Lewis, seated in a chair by her computer desk on a recent winter afternoon. “She’s gonna be my ballerina and gymnast.”
The kids chatter and Lewis’ girlfriend steps into a bedroom to change 8-month-old Ezra’s diaper. Afternoon sunlight fills the room with a soft glow as Lewis, a 52-year-old woman with a trick knee, adjusts her seat and gets comfortable.
She hasn’t twirled or danced in a long time, but that’s OK. She gets around more than most people would in her condition and she says she’s too nosy to sit still at home all day. Indeed, this woman with burdens of her own spends most of her time out and about, helping others in her poverty-ridden neighborhood on Hamilton Hill.
She gets her girlfriend’s grandkids and her neighbor’s kids on and off the school bus, walks them to Harmony Fellowship or the Boys and Girls Club for snacks and playtime and mentoring. Some days she takes a dozen kids to the park instead, but only when the older “violent boys” aren’t there. Other days she volunteers at community agencies or visits the library or makes a pantry run. Whenever she sees need, she gets up and does something about it.
“You can’t go hungry in Schenectady,” she said.
Wisps of curly hair peek out from her blond, gray and brown cornrows. She wears an eyebrow ring and pink studs in her ears, blue cargo shorts and Nike sandals. The most predominant feature is her expression — a little tired, but open with a smile ready to break out.
“I go to SICM, the Salvation Army, St. Luke’s, Bethesda, Fellowship and Harmony,” she said, listing food pantries in the area. “Once a month I make the trip and I get so much bags for how many is in a family. So if I don’t need it then I give it to Trish or I give it to Queenie, ’cause this lady is elderly so she don’t get around too good. And when I don’t give it to them I give it to Melissa or whoever needs it.”
Trish, Queenie and Melissa are just some of the people who make up Lewis’ daily life.
There are more. There’s Peaches, an elderly woman Lewis met on a walk around the neighborhood one day and began playing the card game Pitty Pat with on a regular basis. There’s Wanda, who lived on Georgetta Dix Plaza and liked to watch TV or play Spades. There was Lil and Kev who lived across the street and would help throw cookouts.
With no car, Lewis hauls bags full of cereal, milk, bread, fruit and vegetables back to her place in her shopping cart.
The cart is ideal because she can lean into it as she walks, taking the pressure off her knees, which have bone spurs.
“I roll the kids and the bags right to the bus and that’s how we get around,” she said.
Lisa Brown, Lewis’ 46-year-old girlfriend, steps out of the bedroom with Ezra in her arms. They raise six kids in their apartment on Strong Street.
“Lim-ou-sine” she says, pronouncing each syllable emphatically before bursting into laughs. “Don’t gotta tote nothing.”
Shopping carts are valuable in Hamilton Hill. The homeless use them to haul cans and bottles and personal belongings.
Residents who can’t afford cars use them to carry groceries or push kids around. Lewis has given two of hers away — one to a friend whose cart was stolen and one to a friend who was new to the neighborhood.
On a road trip back from Chicago one day in 1997, Lewis’ cousin lost control of his SUV and hit a guardrail. He said another driver cut him off. But Lewis, who was in the back seat undoing his baby son from a car seat to change his diaper, believes he fell asleep at the wheel.
“Only him and God know the story,” she said, her deep voice rolling one word into the next.
The five people in the vehicle all survived. Two babies were uninjured, one protected in Lewis’s arms. Her cousin broke his nose. But on the SUV’s second flip, Lewis was ejected and seriously injured. A helicopter rushed her to a nearby hospital, where doctors determined she had three herniated discs in her back and one in her neck.
Today, she has a trick left knee and needs surgery on her right knee, which causes her excruciating pain from the bone spurs.
“One of the things I always notice about Brenda is her attitude,” said Grantley McLeod, pastor at Harmony Fellowship on Albany Street. “She just has one of the most positive attitudes that I’ve seen, even with her so-called condition of walking with a cane. She’s always walking around the neighborhood, looking to engage the kids and to help them. Her attitude at times is infectious and at other times is admired.”
Lewis spends a lot of her time at the church, drinking coffee with McLeod or bringing in a troupe of kids for food and to participate in a mentoring program that teaches friendship, respect and accountability.
“We also meet at the Boys and Girls Club on Saturday,” he said. “She’ll bring the kids and volunteer. Or I’ll see her at our food pantry, which meets twice a month. She’ll come and volunteer there as well.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the “Friends” theme song rings out from her television and dominoes clack as the kids run around, kicking them into one another.
“Devonna, get that game and put it up!” Lewis yells to her girlfriend’s 6-year-old granddaughter.
Her girlfriend moves toward the front door, an unlit cigarette in her hand, then changes her mind and takes a seat on the futon.
“They weren’t supposed to stay, but they really grew on us,” said Brown, nodding toward her grandkids.
Lewis and Brown began watching the lot when Brown’s son was in jail. His girlfriend wanted to go to school and get a job, but she couldn’t afford day care or a babysitter.
Brown and Lewis, who have been together 10 years, agreed to move up from Newburgh and watch the kids. But watching turned into a more permanent situation.
Brown’s son and his girlfriend live upstairs. The space is a lot smaller and there’s no room for the kids, says Brown.
“If I had it my way, I’d send them home and they’d live there,” she said. “But it’s too much and we too attached.”
Looking at Lewis, she adds: “She loves kids. She’s more patient than me. Before I knew her, I knew that about her ’cause everywhere we went every kid knew her.”
Lewis has been on the lookout recently for new activities for the kids. She debates out loud between bowling, skating or boxing.
“I do love kids,” she says. “I just want them to know that they matter, too.”
She worries that some parents in the neighborhood don’t pay enough attention to their kids. “And I don’t know if it’s because they don’t know about the different activities and stuff that’s out there, but I try to make that difference.”
When she hears frustrated parents complain about running out of diapers, she tells them about the free Pampers and formula at the Schenectady Community Action Program. When a neighbor is worried about the electricity being turned off, she tells them to talk to Anne at Bethesda House. When she sees kids wearing clothes that are too old or small, she picks up clothing from one of the local agencies.
“She’s sort of that bridge in a lot of areas, especially with the kids in the community, that helps point people to those services that they may not know about or know how to navigate through the process of receiving services,” McLeod said. “She’s somebody who’s just committed to her community and the change that she wants to see take place.”
It’s one of the reasons Lewis recently volunteered at a new gig, one that will gauge the hurdles to healthy living for her peers. Late last month, the Schenectady Coalition for a Healthy Community launched UMatter Schenectady, a group of more than 40 organizations across the county overseeing a door-to-door survey of Schenectady residents in an effort to identify unmet health and social needs.
The effort needed volunteers to knock on doors, and Lewis was referred by SCAP to help out. After all, she’s already out and about on the streets asking near-strangers how she can help.
Lewis has been on disability since 1999, and has struggled to hold down traditional 9-to-5 jobs. She takes computer courses just to learn and has completed career readiness training through SCAP.
“The pain varies,” she said, rubbing her right knee. “Some days I can get up and some days I can’t. So I work and volunteer based on my eligibility, like if I’m able to get around and have flexibility.”
She feels lucky that she’s able to walk to Hometown Health on State Street if she needs help. But not everyone is so fortunate, she said.
“Like Kev, he had a pacemaker and I mean, this guy was calling cabs, cabs, cabs. And I was down at Hometown Health and I seen a sign that say ‘medical transportation,’ and I took the number and gave it to him. And he’s been thanking me ever since, ’cause now he don’t have to pay for cabs.”
Lack of transportation may be the biggest health hurdle in her community, but housing is a close second.
In fact, Lewis had to move last year because her landlord wouldn’t do anything about black mold growing in her apartment. She only found out about it when her upstairs neighbor was hospitalized after a severe asthma attack.
Lewis has asthma, as well, but was always fine as long as she had her humidifier, three inhalers and the prescription medication Advair.
“It’s the slumlords,” she said, shaking her head Tuesday afternoon. “When I moved there [the asthma] was so severe, I couldn’t catch it. It kept hitting me back to back to back, and we didn’t know what the problem was, but it was the black mold.”
Wanda, a friend of hers across the street, got kicked out of her home when she complained about a roach infestation to her landlord. Two weeks later, the landlord was renting the place out again.
Lewis doesn’t see Wanda as much anymore. She’ll visit City Hall sometimes to report the bad housing conditions, but most of the time nothing gets done.
Amori plods over and climbs up on her lap. Lewis jokes that she doesn’t want her sitting there, but as she says it she holds the 4-year-old closer, yelling across the room for 11-year-old Nana to get tissues for baby Ezra’s nose. He has a cold.
“My every day is like a merry-go-round,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I enjoy my ride ’cause it just makes me feel like I made a difference. You just get across to one, I’m OK. ’Cause it’s hard when everybody looking at you, you looking at me, we looking at each other, and we don’t get nowhere like that. You gotta go get it. It’s never gonna come to you. That’s for sure.”