Through the end of a tumultuous 11-year relationship, borrowing against her pension to pay for her mother's funeral just two days before her firstborn son's father died and missing enough work that left her unable to afford Christmas presents for her three sons – two of whom are autistic – who would have blamed Portia Lowery if she lost the last of her faith this holiday season?
However, thanks to 20 teens from the Essex Hudson Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Inc., the Lowerys opened presents in their Newark apartment Sunday morning, celebrating Christmas in a way that seemed so unlikely a few weeks ago.
After turning to New Jersey SEEDS for help in identifying a deserving family, the teens from Jack and Jill hit the Livingston Mall to purchase items off the Lowerys' wish list: a laptop and clothes for eldest son Teryon, 14; clothes and toys for Tyler, 4, and Isaiah, 2; and a foot massager and aromatherapy products for their mother.
“I always believe God is making so many changes in my life,” Portia Lowery said. “It's not just the gifts per se. It's just know that somebody's there supporting you.”
A fourth-grade teacher at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Elementary School – the grammar school she attended before graduating from Science Park High School and New Jersey City University – Lowery has already run through her allotted days off this year. As a single mother, she juggles her schedule since Tyler goes for speech therapy at the Children's Specialized Hospital in Mountainside and Isaiah attends feeding therapy sessions at St. Joseph's Children's Hosptial in Paterson.
After Tyler (who has Asperger's) and Isaiah (who is non-verbal with global development delays and feeding issues) were diagnosed as being autistic, Portia said her relationship with their father began to deteriorate. In July, she packed up her three kids and moved them into an apartment blocks from the Belleville border.
During this time, Portia found a closeness with her mother that had been lacking through the years, savoring their final months together before Alberta Lowery died Nov. 25 from heart and kidney failure. Since Alberta was without medical insurance, Portia tapped into her pension to pay for her mother's proper burial Dec. 3 since she said her two siblings could not afford to offer financial assistance.
Two days later, Willie Pierre, Teryon's father, succumbed after a battle with stomach cancer.
Through these dark days that cast shadows of doubt over how she would provide a Christmas for her family, Portia stayed optimistic for the sake of her children – even if she was shaken to her core.
“You really don't think that people will come out and someone will help someone who is going through a lot but is still smiling,” Portia said. “We usually look at people who need help who are homeless. I guess we don't look like we're going through something, but we are.”
Although proud, Portia nonetheless sent an e-mail to Jamie McClintock, the New Jersey SEEDS Development Officer, Parents Program, who passed it along to Jack and Jill. Within days, 20 teenagers combed the Livingston Mall to ensure presents would sit beneath the Lowery Christmas tree.
And while the teens never met the Lowerys, they delighted in knowing how much the laptop will help Teryon – a freshman at Delbarton High School and an alumnus of the New Jersey SEEDS Young Scholars Program – advance his studies.
Not to mention how much Isaiah and Tyler like their Thomas the Train toys, and how much the aromatherapy products from Bath and Body Works will help Portia get some much-needed sleep.
“It felt so good to give back and help a family that needed it and I'm sure appreciated it,” said Taylor Branch, a Jack and Jill member who hails from Maplewood and is a junior at Summit's Kent Place. “I know as a group we were talking about how amazing a feeling it was.”
“I think they had a great Christmas,” Portia said of her children. “Through it all they still had a wonderful Christmas.”