Note: This story is part of the fifth and final installment of Learning Curve, a year-long series of stories following a group of families whose children are attending public schools across New York state during the pandemic. Start from the beginning here.
Nine-year-old Diamond Yeno sits at the kitchen table and browses images of hairstyles on her phone.
Boxes and bins cover the table and line the perimeter of the room. Cabinets hang open, and on one corner of the cluttered counter sits an eviction notice from the Dutchess County Sheriff's Office.
Diamond stands and pulls back the curtain to her mother's room. Behind it are more boxes, bags lined up and stacked.
"Mommy isn't feeling too well today," she says.
The bed creaks as Diamond's mother, Kendra Smith, rises, then makes her way into the kitchen.
Learning Curve: Kendra and Diamond talk about the future and how this year has gone
Patrick Oehler and Carucha L. Meuse, Poughkeepsie Journal
She runs her fingers over the dark circles beneath her eyes. She slinks into a chair, arms crossed, shoulders slumped.
Nearly a year ago, in the midst of the pandemic, Kendra and Diamond were reunited in this apartment. At the beginning of this past week, they had no choice but to leave.
After a battle in court, Kendra was evicted from her apartment on Smith Street in Poughkeepsie and ordered to leave as of Tuesday. She had been trying unsuccessfully to find a new home for the past year.
Another new start
Diamond has been in remote learning since March of last year. Last July she was reunited with her mother full-time and transferred from the Hyde Park school district to Morse Elementary School in Poughkeepsie.
Since moving in with her mother, it's been an uphill battle for them both. With multiple deaths in the family, an injury and now losing her apartment, Kendra has felt the weight of being a single parent.
Diamond, too, has struggled. Without an established group of friends or familiarity in a new school district, she shied away from resuming in-person instruction when given the opportunity in February. A group of cousins have served as her main support system.
Now, the pair will have to navigate another fresh start together.
Without a home, Kendra moved out of Poughkeepsie to live with her aunt on Sunday. Within two days in a new town Kendra secured a job as a laundry room attendant inspector.
"I applied to every type of housing you could think of," Kendra said. "I'm a single mom with low income, so it's hard when you have so many bills and I'm doing it by myself."
Pushing through the turmoil
In this Poughkeepsie apartment late last month, Diamond enters a room with her little cousin Natalia in tow. Quietly, she helps the girl climb onto the counter before walking behind Kendra to search for hair products in the bins.
It's her dream to open up her own salon when she gets older.
"Diamond you need to pack up your stuff," Kendra admonishes.
Natalia climbs off the counter and the two walk back to Diamond's room, just as three more cousins walk in through the front door.
"It's tough for her to focus with all this going on," Kendra says before greeting her nieces and nephews as they walk in. It's a Thursday evening on a school night, but that doesn't stop a parade of friends and family from moving in and out of the apartment to check on Kendra.
"Things were calm for a while and she was doing good, but right now if I'm under stress she gets under stress, so it's not good. We are constantly together, so it's not like I can go and take a breather — she's always there, so she experiences a lot."
Since they started packing up, Kendra has noticed, Diamond's grades have started to slip. Kendra works in the mornings as a home aide and can't monitor her work as it's being done.
"She says she completes her work, but then I come home and it's not completed," Kendra says. "Her grades are really fluctuating; it's been a horrible semester for her."
Diamond stayed enrolled in remote learning for the entire year, even though in-person instruction began in Poughkeepsie in February. Kendra said the decision was rooted in concerns for her daughter's safety, and Diamond's reluctance to return. But, now that COVID cases are dropping and more people are getting vaccinated, she plans to enroll Diamond for in-person instruction at the beginning of the next school year.
Kendra's biggest concern right now is creating a stable environment for Diamond to successfully move on from third grade, regardless of their changing living situation.
"I'm worried mostly because it's happening at the end of the year and there's a lot of pressure right now," Kendra said. "She doesn't really understand what's truly going on."
A year of change and growth
One word comes to mind when Kendra looks back on her first year as a single mother.
While the fight to bring her baby home was over, the struggle to create a relationship between mother and daughter was just beginning.
"It's been tough, there was a lot of 'You don't love me,' and 'I hate you' or 'I want to go with my dad,' " she recalled. "That really broke my heart. It just comes out when I discipline her."
While the two have come a long way, Kendra says she sees the toll and pressure the situation is putting on her daughter.
Regardless, Kendra has seen growth in Diamond.
"She's become more outspoken, and she can be helpful; when she sees that I'm depressed she will make me food and make sure I have something to drink," Kendra said. "There are little things like that where she can be the best little baby in the world."
The growth can be seen not only in Diamond but in Kendra, as well.
"I've been learning, paying attention and listening. ... I think a lot of the things that happened to me were linked to the color of my skin," Kendra said. "I didn't have lawyers, I wasn't aware of nothing because I didn't have the information I needed to fight for myself.
"I just happen to be a young poor black girl from the projects that tried to make it out of here, that's trying to make my life better for my daughter so that she doesn't have to suffer the way I've suffered," she added.
A new chapter
A fly flits past Kendra's face for the fifth time in the past half hour.
She passively brushes it away from her spot at the kitchen table. A fly trap hangs at the sink; the source of the problem lies above her head: A gaping hole in the ceiling.
The apartment was a saving grace for her years ago after being incarcerated and left living on the streets. It now holds the memories and scars of an abusive ex-husband and a tumultuous past.
When she found out that she was being forced to leave, Kendra says part of her felt relieved she didn't have to live in the same place anymore.
"Part of me felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders," she says. "I've really wanted to get out of here, but I didn't expect it to happen so suddenly and without a place to go.
"I know I'm not the only one, I know so many people are going through this, but even when you're surrounded with so many people, you still feel so alone, and that's hard," she adds. "I'm drained, but I think this might be a sign from God, because I needed to leave this place."
As she speaks, Diamond pops into the kitchen and takes a sip from her mom's bottle of water. Kendra jokingly scolds her, but a smile plays on her face. Diamond leans against her mom and puts her arm around her shoulder.
"This is going to be an obstacle for us, a new one that we haven't faced together," Kendra said. "It's going to show our strength, and I just hope for blessings and God giving us what we need."
Katelyn Cordero is the education reporter for the Poughkeepsie Journal: email@example.com; Twitter: @KatelynCordero.