Kilkenny's Aylward gives her time to Hour Children

By Peter McDermott

Yvette Aylward got quite a welcome when she arrived at JFK in January.

Her decision to volunteer for a Queens-based organization that helps former women prisoners had been a "leap of faith." But the written greeting she saw at the airport was certainly a good beginning.

Sr. Teresa Fitzgerald stood with a shamrock-emblazoned sign that declared: "Welcome, Yvette, to your New York Home - Hour Children."

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Aylward, a 29-year-old former employee of the Central Bank in Dublin, exchanged several emails with the founder of the organization that provides accommodation to more than 40 women and their small children.

Finally, Fitzgerald, who is universally known as St. Tesa, wrote: "If you're willing to pay your fare - come on over!"

"The risk paid off, because I am very much enjoying my experience," said Aylward, who decided last year to make a career change from business and finance to social work.

The Mullinavat, Co. Kilkenny, woman had been thinking about working for the Catholic Worker homeless shelter in Rochester, N.Y. but the correspondence with St. Tesa changed her mind.

"She implicitly trusts people and gives them a chance. It's a wonderful characteristic that seems to be the central tenet of Hour Children," she said.

Now, Aylward lives in a house in Long Island City whose residents include 15 women and their small children.

"It can be a tad chaotic, to say the least," she said.

But the organization works, and has the statistics to prove it. The recidivism rate for the women who are accepted into its program is 4 percent compared to 30 percent for female ex-prisoners generally.

The women can study for their GEDs, their children are minded and they are given help in finding a job. In return, they work for the organization. "It's a very supportive environment," Aylward said.

The house in Long Island City is the first stop after leaving prison. Residents, who are allowed to stay with Fitzgerald's charity for an indefinite period, can graduate to homes and apartments with less restrictive rules.

The organization's name is a reference to the time a child waits to see its mother in prison. In the few months since Aylward arrived in New York, she has heard stories about the downsides of the American criminal justice system. "It's too easy to sever a woman's contact with her children," she said. "One good thing about the Irish Constitution is that it protects the rights of the mother."

Aylward's experience with Hour Children has helped confirm for her that her career switch was the right decision. She had one job after she graduated from Waterford Institute of Technology in economics and finance that had a strong social dimension - with a Waterford City Council program that encouraged children to use its library system. She liked the work, but it provided little scope for promotion. She went on to do a Masters in business studies at the Smurfit School in University College Dublin and later obtained a higher diploma in statistics from Trinity College before taking a job with the Central Bank.

When her mother became ill a year ago, however, she gave up the position to care for her. Then, when her mother got better, Aylward threw herself into voluntary social work locally for several months.

There would be another twist in the story for Aylward, who has three adult brothers and two teenage sisters that her parents began fostering eight years ago. She got a green card through an online application, which led to her decision to come to the United States.

She's anxious, though, to begin academic studies in social work this year and that will likely mean a return to Ireland because of the prohibitive tuition fees in this country.

For now, she's enjoying her work with Sister Tesa and the residents. "I really like their resilience, their great sense of humor and their wit," she said. And New Yorkers generally have been a revelation for her. "They are very open - they say what they think - and there's a certain appeal to such straight-forwardness, even though it can be a bit startling at first," she said.

"I'm learning so much," Aylward said. "It has been a real baptism of fire in terms of getting to know the non-profit sector - and a lot of hard work."