Shelter helps mom, baby find better future
ROCHESTER — For much of her life, Nicole Van Coppenolle thought she’d never amount to anything because that’s the message she received from most of the people around her, including teachers at the elementary school she attended in Florida.
“They thought I was dumb because I’m (legally) blind,” says Nicole, 24, a Rochester native who has moved around often. “They put me in a class over and over again, trying to teach me multiplication. I knew it in third grade, and they had me there until sixth grade. They just put me in lower classes. I don’t think I really thought I was smart enough because most of them thought I was dumb, so I guess I felt like I was.”
Nicole’s vision impairment is due to hereditary retinoblastoma and cataracts, for which she underwent 22 radiation treatments and the removal of her lenses when she was an infant.
It wasn’t until her senior year at Newmarket Junior-Senior High School that a teacher told her she could be doing better, and the jolt of confidence “woke me up,” she says. Since then, she’s been attempting to carve out a successful path for herself, and that path includes getting her first apartment this fall after battling with homelessness as a single parent.
"If only those teachers could see me now," Nicole says she was thinking on the day she signed the lease.
“I never thought I would be in my own apartment or get an apartment by 24,” says Nicole, whose birthday was two days after she officially moved into her new home with her 1-year-old son, Aiden. “So I’m kind of thinking it’s not real. It just can’t be real, but it’s real. Oh my gosh.”
It had been a difficult year for Nicole. Aiden's father isn't in her life and lives in Vermont, she says. Days after Aiden’s birth, Nicole learned her father had terminal cancer. His own retinoblastomas were benign, although doctors found a cancerous tumor in his bladder. He succumbed to that cancer six months later.
Then, within four months, Nicole found herself forced to live in a tent with Aiden and her mom (her parents divorced when Nicole was 5) at a campground just over the border in Maine. Nicole did so because she had difficulty finding an affordable apartment in the area after the trio moved out of their previous living arrangement, a crowded house with multiple generations of family.
“I didn’t feel I had any other choice at the time,” Nicole says of her decision to sleep in a tent with a 10-month-old baby. “My decision was for it to be temporary and to get into a shelter as fast as I could.”
She’s thankful her time in a tent was brief after finding a room at New Generation, a Greenland homeless shelter for pregnant women and women with young children. Nicole says she couldn’t have gotten her subsidized two-bedroom apartment in Cold Spring Manor, a Rochester Housing Authority development, without New Generation's support. The shelter has also continued to help Nicole navigate various systems and find furniture for her apartment.
“We’re all really excited for her here,” says Donna Marsh, New Generation’s executive director.
The only negative part about moving into the shelter, says Nicole, was that she had to give up her internship at Addagio Spa in Barrington because she couldn't find consistent transportation.
Nicole can only see up to 10 to 15 feet in front of her if she’s wearing her copper-framed glasses. Sometimes she has difficulty seeing fine details of people’s faces, and she keeps her eyes closed much of the day, “especially while talking to people,” she says. Luckily, Aiden doesn’t show any signs of retinoblastoma, she says.
Due to Nicole’s vision, she relies heavily on bus systems and Uber drivers to go to work and get around the area, and most of her decisions, like day care and housing, are based on transportation first and cost second. Her $354-per-month apartment at Cold Spring met both criteria, along with the added bonus that one of the available units was adjacent to the development’s playground. Aiden’s windows look right out onto the slides, and he spent much of his time laughing his way across the equipment while his mother spoke with Seacoast Media Group recently.
Her plan is to go back to school to become an accountant. She’d also love to help other people, possibly through conservation efforts in the Rochester area, because she says she believes in volunteerism.
“I’d love to see that I’m helping out people and making some sort of a difference,” says Nicole, who was working at the Target store in Greenland when Seacoast Media Group last spoke with her. “I’d love to help (take) the load off someone else’s shoulders.”