Helen Young succeeded as a single mother, now she’s helping others do the same

Helen Young at hopme

A version of “Helen Young succeeded as a single mother, now she’s helping others do the same originally appeared in the Sept. 24, 2015 edition of the Seaford Star.

In the 1940s, Helen Young was a single mother and a seventh-grade dropout. In 2014, the Blades resident endowed a $50,000 scholarship for single mothers at Coppin University. In the intervening decades she put it a lot of hard work, raising six sons and overcoming the handicaps of segregation and a secret disability.

Born in 1932, by the time she was old enough to recognize hard times the Great Depression nearly was over, but the end of the Depression and the beginning of the war didn’t have a massive effect in the Baltimore ghetto. Young never mentions want, it wasn’t much of a factor in her life because it always had been a natural part of it. She does mention exclusion which, along with her devotion to her children, drove her to work hard enough to overcome her situation. From the time she was a child, Young wanted to be a nurse, like her aunts Fannie and Emma. Nurses played a double role in the black communities of the time working in the hospitals and volunteering at the churches.

“Church nurses,” Young said, would visit the sick and stand watch over the dead during wakes. In a community that had what she regarded as pitiful healthcare – white doctors would not touch black patients – having a little extra help was critical. But it wasn’t always enough.

When she was in the second grade, Young rose from her desk and was stuck with vertigo. She fell down and her mother had to be sent for. When she returned to school she was unable to learn and eventually had to quit. What she wouldn’t discover until she was in her 30s (and wouldn’t admit to her family until very recently) was that she had a hearing disorder that remains undiagnosed. If she focuses on the speaker, and only one person is speaking, she can hear fine. But if there are distractions or multiple voices at once she can’t make out anything. 

Although black children weren’t welcome at the local Five and Dime, they were permitted to come in and shop during short periods after school under strict supervision. Young remembers buying a play medical kit in a tin case that would be the favorite and most well-used toy of her childhood.

“I didn’t have a watch or anything, but I knew what time the nurses got to work,” she said. “I would run Franklin Square Hospital and stand outside to watch the nurses come in.”

Young found work as a field hand, riding out to Patapsco daily on the back of a truck.

“I remember the farmer, old Mr. Eichman,” she said. “We picked beans. As a child I would drag the filled sacks out of the fields.”

Helen Young: Farmhand to LPN

By the early 1950s, she was able to find work as a hospital attendant and was on her way to becoming a nurse. The path was different at the time, and she was working for the state. A person could test into nursing positions and, with time and experience, eventually become a licensed practical nurse (LPN).

During the 1950s and 60s, Young worked as a psychiatric attendant at Rosewood in Baltimore. She and the other black women who worked there were not welcomed by the staff. A light-skinned friend of hers, mistaken for a caucasian, was told, “They get darker and darker every year.”

As she studied for her different tests, Young also had the acumen to familiarize herself with the state labor rules and regulations. She had seen how they could be used as weapons, so she wanted to be able to use them as a shield.

When she quit Rosewood to have a child (there was no maternity leave), she had the presence of mind to write not to her supervisors, but to the state hospital commission for reinstatement. As it turned out, she received the government’s reinstatement letter the day before Rosewood said they would not have her back. Without the letter from the hospital commissioner, that might have been true, but instead she headed back to work and continued to try and improve her condition. 

As the nursing regulations changed and proper schooling replaced on the job training Young was grandfathered in with an “LPN – Waiver” meaning that she was untrained but considered competent. Through a program sponsored by the temp company “Manpower” she was able to commute her certification and become an LPN without the waiver. That experience got her back in the classroom for the first time in more than 30 years and she decided she would get her GED.

Unable to pass the mathematics portion, Young got a tutor. By now, she had left Rosewood and was working in Crownsville, still with the mentally ill. Young worked in the admissions department on the overnight shift. Still, she would bring in records (she remains an avid music collector).  

“Some of the patients remembered the words to the songs, some got up and danced,” she said.

After her shift she would go for tutoring until she was able to pass the GED and enter what at the time was called Community College of Baltimore. It was 1973 and race relations remained tense in the city. Although she had some success, the tension was too much. She was targeted, she suspects, by someone in the administration because in November she received a birthday card from the school filled with racial epithets.

A Real Community at Coppin State

It was stress she didn’t need, and she transferred to Coppin State University nursing program, where she flourished. Although she had to pay her way through her freshman year, by the time she was a sophomore she was given a full scholarship. A Senatorial grant paid for books and her full-time job paid to maintain the house. She still had two teenagers at home and slept only about three hours a day. In her junior year, she was required to do a practicum, which meant she no longer could work the overnights.

When Young attempted to switch shifts and was prevented, she filed a complaint. Throughout her time at Crownsville she was prevented from ascending to LPN III because, she claimed, of unfair labor practices.

As long as she was fighting for a better shift, she also would fight for better pay. Her complaints launched an investigation that would eventually end with everyone on her shift being elevated to LPN III.

Unfortunately, she couldn’t wait for the resolution, so Young took a pay cut and moved to another hospital, the Maryland Rehabilitation Center. The 1970s had become the 1980s and although parts of the city were racially charged, still, she found the atmosphere at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center much more welcoming.

“The caucasians who worked there, we had to work together because when you work with the mentally ill, you can get hurt. You could get killed,” she said. 

“People always asked me how I could work with [the mentally ill],” said Young.  “I always told them the same thing: ‘I know what they are, but I don’t know what you are.’”

Knowing where she stood with the patients and knowing that she could, with her skill, ease their suffering was important to her.

“Our society says it’s OK to get sick from the neck down, but it’s not OK to get sick from the neck up,” she said. “We had to treat them from the top of their head to the bottom for the feet.”

The very year she graduated, 1983, a little more than a decade after she got her GED, she began donating to Coppin State University. After she retired and moved to Blades in 1994, she began donating a little more every year. When Young’s mother, Annie, died, Young was donating enough annually to get a visit from the president of the school’s board of directors.

Last year, as a way of helping other people like herself out of dire straits, she endowed the scholarship that bears her name. Her $25,000 gift was matched by the school to establish the Helen Young Angel of Hope Foundation Merrit Scholarship.