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Jill Porter: Giving birth to a friendship & a school

IT WAS supposed to end at birth. Bonnie Botel-Sheppard was a volunteer who provided guidance and support during pregnancy and childbirth to the homeless young woman who had no mother.

IT WAS supposed to end at birth.

Bonnie Botel-Sheppard was a volunteer who provided guidance and support during pregnancy and childbirth to the homeless young woman who had no mother.

When Janita McGee had her baby nearly three years ago, Bonnie's job with the Philadelphia Alliance for Labor Support as a doula - the emotional equivalent of a midwife - was done. She'd make one more visit the next day and say goodbye.

But when she brought Janita back to the homeless shelter - where she had no blanket, no pillow and no one to help her - Bonnie realized that she'd come to love Janita over the few months they'd spent together.

"I love you, too," Janita said from her shelter bed, exhausted and uncertain how she'd get through.

The next day, Bonnie and her daughter shopped for furniture and bedding for Janita and her baby, William, and transformed the spare shelter room into a homey place.

And ever since, they've connected across the boundaries of age, race, wealth and experience to develop a friendship and bond they describe as that of mother and daughter.

Janita, 21, now has an apartment and a job, and plans to pursue a degree in health management at Philadelphia Community College.

"Bonnie, she's been my role model, because if I didn't have the support I have, I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing now," Janita said.

The inspiration has worked both ways.

Bonnie, 55 and a prominent educator at the University of Pennsylvania, has started work on a new project: a charter school for homeless children.

Janita was a crack baby abandoned by her birth mother at the hospital. She was rescued from foster-care roulette by an aunt.

But, as she grew, their relationship was strained by Janita's tantrums and emotional breakdowns. Janita was hospitalized with psychiatric problems and suicide attempts, and put into residential placement, where she said she was raped at age 9.

"I had a lot of anger I didn't know how to handle," Janita said, sitting on the sofa in Bonnie's East Falls home.

Janita knew what people expected of her: to fail, to drop out of school, to turn to drugs.

But she got A's in school, and got her high-school diploma.

She did fulfill one negative expectation: She became a teenage mother. And after giving birth to William, fathered by her fiancé, she became pregnant by him again and has a 10-month-old daughter named Jada.

Bonnie was disappointed when Janita got pregnant again.

But she stuck by her, acting as mentor, role model, emergency resource and guardian angel.

She's guiding her, for instance, through holidays and other family rituals - from Halloween to Thanksgiving - to help her develop traditions that, as a motherless child, Janita never learned.

Bonnie is director of the Penn Literacy Network, an organization founded by her father that trains educators to use reading and writing to reach pupils.

She's also a wife and mother of three.

Bonnie volunteered to become a doula because "I'd been an administrator of an educational program for 20 years. I felt I needed to get more connected to people.

"What more intimate way can there be to be with people than when they're giving birth?"

She took to Janita immediately.

"She has a nice nature. She's very appreciative. She always tells me how much the relationship means to her.

"She's really a smart person and I saw she had the potential to do great things."

Their relationship inspired Bonnie to read about the plight of the homeless. With her background in education, the next step was perhaps inevitable: She's forming a nonprofit agency to found the school for homeless children.

It will be located near a shelter, and will cater to the unique demands of rootless families.

The board comprises prominent educators, homeless advocates, school psychologists - and Janita.

Bonnie and Janita get together a couple of times a month. They talk on the phone at least once a week. When Janita needs help, Bonnie and her husband, Bob, provide it.

"I think about her all the time," Bonnie said. "I love Janita."

"She strengthened me," Janita said of Bonnie."Now I feel like I can trust people."

So while the relationship between them was supposed to end at birth, now it may last until the other end of the cycle of life. *

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