Samora Coles is many things. She is an executive director, a mother of two kids, a fiancé. But according to locals, this incredible woman is more than her titles imply.
You wouldn’t know by looking at Samora that she has had a rough go of it. She gives off an air of happy-go-lucky optimism that few people, even those born into the best circumstances, possess. So it can be hard to imagine that at the age of 17, Samora became a single-mother with little idea of how she was going to raise her child.
“[My grandparents] were not too knowledgeable about what to do with a teenage mom. I didn’t know what to do as a teenage mom. I turned to the school and my guidance counselor told me to drop-out. She told me I couldn’t be mom and go to school.” Samora laughed and added, “Had I known my rights I would have told
her where to shove it.”
Many years after she dropped out of high school, had a baby, and struck it out on her own, Samora would find a way to help those facing the same challenges that she had faced herself.
In her small shared office, located on Lorraine Street in the heart of Red Hook, Samora Coles recalled growing up in Bed-Stuyvesant, under the care of her grandparents.
“My grandparents were very traditional grandparents,” she said, reaching back into her memories, “We ate dinner together every night, they made breakfast every morning before school, had Sunday dinners. It was very wholesome.”
As Samora spoke, she smiled infectiously. “I think my generation…,” she stopped herself and laughed, “Oh, I sound so old. I think my age group had the best time. We just played outside all the time, played games. We had so much fun.”
About four years after dropping out of high school and having a baby, it was time for Samora to strike out on her own. She filled out an application for public housing. When given the opportunity to select her top three location preferences, Samora thought of her mother and siblings who lived in Red Hook. Determined, she wrote down Red Hook in each of the three slots.
“I was either gonna get housing in Red Hook or I wasn’t going to get housing,” Samora remarked, grinning.
She was placed in Red Hook.
As Samora raised her sons in the Red Hook Houses, she took whatever jobs she could. She worked retail for a time and eventually transitioned into direct care, a role which had her serving mentally challenged adults. Though she didn’t know it then, Samora had started down a path that would come to define her career.
“I learned this is how you help other people. This is how you maintain their integrity,” Samora explained.
But working in Direct Service meant working nights, and Samora had two young children to think of.
In 2006, Samora found herself searching for a job that would better map on to her two son’s school schedules. As PTA President, Samora received a fax that listed a position with the Red Hook Initiative (RHI) as a Reproductive Health Coordinator.
“I thought, I could do that,” Samora remembered.
Her position at RHI had her working with the community, especially young people, on issues of sexual and reproductive health.
Then in 2011, she began working with the woman’s prison system, teaching women in maximum security about reproductive health. After a year in this position, Samora returned to the Red Hook community with a goal. She began working part-time with RHI in order to fund a new vision: The Alex House Project.
THE ALEX HOUSE
Back when Samora began working for RHI, the executive director asked her a question: If she could help anyone in her community, who would it be?
At the time, she responded that she just wanted a job. But later, Samora returned to the director with what was then only a dream. She wanted to help young moms.
In 2012, Samora opened the doors of her new organization, a single-woman operation that she named after her first son, Alex. The program was specifically designed to be a resource that Samora had lacked when she attempted to raise a child as a 17 year-old.
In the beginning, the Alex House received small grants here and there to keep it afloat. All the while, Samora worked directly with new moms, offering support and guidance wherever she could.
Come 2016, the dedicated professional procured a stable source of funding that allowed her to expand her staff, locations, and programming. She added classes for young fathers and opened programs in Crown Heights to serve central Brooklyn.
Through her passion, the organization has evolved into a “peer-led social service support and leadership development organization for young parents living in New York.”
In other words, through the Alex House, new mothers and fathers learn how to ease the transition into parenthood from other young parents who have been through the program. They get information and advice on raising children, gain access to important resources, and slowly tear-down the stigma associated with having children at an early age.
“We don’t tell them how to raise their children, but give them information through workshops to help,” Samora explained. “It gives them self-esteem and takes away the stigma of ‘I don’t know what to do.’”
She further expressed that by involving prior course graduates in the teaching and training of the next class of parents, the Alex House gives participants “a voice and a choice in the organization.” She hopes that through teaching, participants gain the confidence to move on to bigger and better things.
In the future, Samora dreams of opening a physical house to offer transitional living to young parents, in addition to classes and resources like business development.
For now, this determined woman is just happy to be able to watch the growth and development of the young people who have been through her programs.
“I’m kind of smart, but I’m not that smart,” she said with a good-natured smile. “When writing proposals, I write from my heart. This is a passion for me… It’s not that I think I might want to do this work, I know this is what I’m supposed to do.”
SAMORA THE PERSON
In talking to Samora, her strength of character is obvious. For a single parent, just keeping the family running day to day is an incredible achievement, but Samora has not only survived, she has thrived.
“Like any single mom, when there are challenges, you overcome them,” she explained, touching on difficult subjects without hesitation and without pleas for pity. “A big [challenge] was employment. I couldn’t afford childcare; I had to find a babysitter every night. Making sure we maintain enough food, enough clothing, [my children’s] basic needs…”
In the early years, Samora worked hard to ensure that her children grew up without feeling like there was anything missing in their home. In the hopes that her sons would never feel like they lacked a father, she kept them close to the grandfather that had raised her as well as the boy’s uncles.
Her sons are now 25 and 17. With one recently graduated from college and the other is working towards his driver’s license, Samora cannot hide her pride in the young men they have become. “They’re really good kids,” she noted, her joy apparent.
“There’s gonna be times when things go backwards for you. There’s gonna be times when people will tell you no… Keep believing and your dream will come true,” Samora advised. “I really believe there’s nothing you can’t do.”
The next round of programs with the Alex House Project begin in September. Any young parents interested in taking classes can email firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations can be sent to 76 Lorraine Street or sent in via their website, alexhouseproject.org.