Former teen mom Linda Howard mothers young mothers, builds political power

Linda Howard makes it her life’s work to provide care to young moms when family and governmental and nonprofit assistance aren’t enough. She provides person-to-person help with material goods, low-cost rent, mental health care, and mentoring – and she’d do even more, if it weren’t for a decade-old conviction that bars her from participation in some efforts. 
Linda Howard (l) talks with a family at Broadway Academy in Slavic Village. (Photo by Caitlin Johnson)

Broadway Academy’s gym was the kind of hot that doesn’t hit you all at once – it sneaks up on you. But on that muggy August afternoon, Linda Howard was comfortable and at ease. The charter school was hosting a resource fair in preparation for school starting again, and she had her “Kiddspantry” table on point. Tall and boisterous, she warmly greeted the moms and kids, passed out flyers, took down contact information, and told them about the goods and services she could provide. Beyond making new connections and helping more people, she was excited that her project was finally scaling up.

The idea behind Kiddspantry is simple: every child deserves enough to eat, clean diapers, and some special things to play with.

“Your baby should have a fresh bottle and fresh nipple,” Howard said. 

Howard started Kiddspantry to give out diapers and milk, but now she drives around Cleveland to collect toys, clothes, bedding, and other supplies for young families – all donated from churches, businesses, community groups, and individuals. 

In Cleveland and throughout Ohio, many families can’t afford those basics. Howard, who became a mother herself at a young age, makes it her life’s work to care for her under-resourced community by filling in the gaps left when family and governmental and nonprofit assistance aren’t enough. She provides person-to-person help with material goods, low-cost rent, mental health care, and mentoring – and she’d do even more, if it weren’t for a decade-old conviction that bars her from participation in some efforts. 

Howard was raised in the Outhwaite homes – a Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority complex in the Central neighborhood. She had her oldest son, Neil, at just 13. Howard said she had it better than many of her peers. Both parents lived at home, and they had jobs and helped her raise her son. Many other girls struggled.

“I became a godmother-type person,” she said, reflecting on how she looked out for other kids when she was still a kid herself. “I thought I could help the world, all the girls in the projects. I would keep bringing strangers home. Even if they didn’t live in the projects – I’d be like, ‘our house is safer.’”

Kiddspantry offers supplies

Today, Howard lives in Maple Heights with her 4-year-old son, and she and her now-grown son Neil run a successful commercial and residential cleaning service. But Howard is still taking care of young women in Cleveland. She sets up Kiddspantry tables at events around town. She also has three regular locations: The Khnemu Lighthouse in Glenville, the Lead Safe Cle Center in Midtown, and now every third Wednesday of the month at Broadway Academy in Slavic Village. People can take any five items they choose. If they have the means, they can throw a few dollars in a jar to help Howard buy supplies for more families.

At Broadway Academy, Kiddspantry will supply families with uniforms, food packages, and items like soap and deodorant. Howard, who is receiving a youth mental health first aid certification from the Cleveland Clinic, will host workshops for parents as well. 

Howard is “helping the parents to help the child,” said Principal Donna Baynes, explaining that the school is a 100% Title 1 school, meaning most families are below the poverty line. “She is here to help make a tighter link between home and school.”

Linda Howard with supplies she distributes through her Kiddspantry. (Photo courtesy of Linda Howard)

Building wraparound supports for moms

That tighter link is what many experts call “wraparound services.” Famous examples include schools like LeBron James’ I Promise School and Harlem’s Children’s Zone. Those schools not only educate children, but through a mix of public and private dollars, provide stability for their entire family with housing, health care, GED classes for parents, and even legal assistance. Gov. Mike DeWine pushed to increase state support for some school-based wraparound services in the 2020-21 state budget by $675 million over two years

At the same time, though, Ohio has cut taxes in recent years for Ohio’s richest residents and wealthy corporations – draining $8 billion a year from housing, food assistance, child care, mental health treatment, and other critical family supports, according to Policy Matters Ohio. Gov. John Kasich oversaw a $1 billion a year cut from the local government fund, leaving poor cities like Cleveland without the resources to fill in the gaps. (Editor’s note: Writer Caitlin Johnson is an employee of Policy Matters Ohio.)

With her community starved of public support, Linda Howard has created her own sort of wraparound support for a group of women she calls The Young Mothers of Cleveland

The group is made up of 11 women Howard has taken under her wing as a mentor, big sister, and for some, a landlord. The Young Mothers frequent the Kiddspantry, but they also get monthly diapers and groceries twice a month. Four of the young mothers and their families live in an East Cleveland apartment building Howard inherited from her father. At $400 to $450 a month, rent is well below market rate. And unlike the rules and restrictions women may face living in public housing, Howard doesn’t kick them out for having a partner or for having personal drama. She only asks that they use services they qualify for through Cuyahoga County – whether it’s Section 8 housing vouchers or child care vouchers. If they need help applying, she will walk them through the forms. 

“She shows them how to do stuff – how to get the lights turned back on, taking these people to the library,” said Nashonda Lawrence, Howard’s friend and the proprietor of the I Am Unique Day Care in the Kinsman neighborhood. “She’s teaching people how to make something out of nothing. Linda makes you feel comfortable about getting help.”

Howard also makes sure the young mothers attend Ghetto Therapy, free community sessions held every Wednesday at 6 p.m. by community activist Walter Patton, because she knows getting someone back on their feet isn’t just about meeting material needs. It’s also about healing. “Linda deals with people in impoverished low-income communities, redlined communities, who suffer from generations of trauma, which causes mental health issues,” Patton said. “What better way to deal with people who have mental health issues than to seek a therapist?” 

Ghetto Therapy is just part of Howard’s program for the Young Mothers. She hosts open mic nights, which Howard said often turns into cry sessions. Every Tuesday is “woosah” night, when the women pamper themselves with manis and pedis.  

Linda Howard and Fred Ward at a Building Freedom Ohio event. (Photo by Jeanna Kenney)

Breaking barriers, making connections

Today, there are more than 40,000 Ohioans in state prisons – nearly three times the 14,000 who were in prison in 1980. Nearly 1 million Ohioans have a felony conviction. Linda Howard is one of those people. She has a felony record for theft and forgery that is more than a decade old. For that reason, Howard is finding that she can’t expand her East Cleveland apartment building into an official group home that would provide county-funded services. People with felony convictions face hundreds of legal barriers that prevent them from doing all sorts of things – mostly from obtaining certain jobs, but also from securing housing and even student loans. 

Recently, Howard began pairing her community service with activism as a leader of Building Freedom Ohio (BFO). Part of statewide Ohio Organizing Collaborative, BFO was founded by Fred Ward, who spent a decade in prison and also runs the Khnemu Lighthouse Center in Glenville. BFO organizes people who are directly impacted by the criminal legal system and mass incarceration. They are laser focused on changing policy at the state and local level to remove the barriers – or “collateral sanctions” – that keep people with felony convictions from moving on with their lives and building better futures. 

BFO’s mission is to organize enough directly impacted people to make real change in Ohio. Howard has traveled to Columbus to speak at rallies. She was also among a group that met with Lt. Gov. John Husted to urge him to support reforms. At the same time, however, Howard understands that there are often more pressing, practical things for people to address before they develop the skills to become movement leaders, says Ward. 

Together, Ward and Howard are thinking beyond traditional organizing, to how they can support young mothers when public systems don’t, even as they continue to advocate for more support. Through the Khnemu Lighthouse Foundation, Ward has secured two homes in Glenville for people returning from prison, one for men and one for women. He wants Linda and her programs ready to support the women as they re-enter society.

“Linda’s like, ‘I’m talking to people about building power, and they need it and they see it. But also they need someplace to stay. They need some clothes,’” Ward said. “Linda sees that both things are needed. And because she realizes to be authentic in the space of people’s lives, you have to do both things. You need some power, you also need accessibility, and you need some resources.” 

Reach Linda through the Young Mothers of Cleveland Instagram.

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