Just months before she graduated from college, Shenika Babb’s future looked bright and promising. But on March 9, 2002, everything changed when her mother suffered a fatal heart attack and collapsed at their home in Queens, New York. In a matter of moments, she went from living the life of a typical 21-year-old coed to being the guardian of her seven younger siblings. Hope for the future seemed grim, but Babb persevered. She finished college, obtained her degree and kept her family out of the foster care system. After seven years of struggle, the family eventually sued the paramedics who tended to her mother and recently won a judgment of $5.3 million. Now, at 29, engaged to be married and still raising her three youngest siblings, Babb tells ESSENCE.com about what kept her going, her plan to help other children, and what she believes her mother would say if she could see her today.
My mother died a month before her fourtieth birthday. When my aunt called to tell me, I just blanked out. I had to come home from college at the State University of New York in Binghamton and prepare myself to take on this new role. My younger siblings were 16, 14, 13, 11, 8, 6 and the baby was just about to turn 2 years old. I didn’t get a chance to think about how hard it was going to be. I just knew I had to do it.
I sat down and came up with a game plan on how to finish school because education was so important to my mother. I would get the kids ready for school on Wednesday mornings, catch the afternoon bus and take the three-hour ride to Binghamton while the kids stayed with my aunt overnight. I came home on Thursdays after class and would then go to pick them up. I did that for two months until graduation. I still had to show up, prove myself and do my work.
When my mom passed away, I didn’t have a job, but I did have a credit card. It still haunts me today along with my student loans, but I always kept up with my payments. We used whatever savings I had, and the kids received social security. I started working that June after graduation at a job that was below my qualifications, but it was a job with benefits. I just sacrificed and accepted it.
All this time, I’d been taking care of my four oldest siblings while the youngest three lived with their father. They were with him until 2004, when I decided to get custody. At first, the judge awarded me weekend visitation, but eventually I received joint custody through kinship status.
I didn’t get to do the things that 21-year-olds get to do after college. I didn’t have time to party or feel depressed. I knew in order to keep them I couldn’t party all the time, try drugs or drink all day. I was so headstrong on my goal to keep the family together. I didn’t get a chance to think about how hard it was going to be. I just knew I had to do it. Sure, there were times when I didn’t think I was going to make it. The hardest part was getting my siblings to respect me as their parent. My second oldest sister became very rebellious, running away from home, so we decided to send her to Virginia to live with family. God’s grace truly got me through it.
Three years after my mom died, I decided to go to grad school. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I told the kids to just please bear with me. My oldest sister helped out a lot while I went to school two nights a week after work and on Saturdays. I would cook enough for two days and do housework at night. I graduated within two years with my masters in public administration.
My stepfather filed suit against the paramedics for using a defibrillator on my mother that didn’t work. She never received the electric charge that could have saved her. The jury decided to award him and my siblings $5.3 million. The hospital is appealing and now we’re waiting for the judge to respond. I’m not entitled to the compensation because the judgment covers the loss of parental guidance for children 18 and under. I’m just grateful that I was at an age where I had my mother for that long.
Now my sister and I are talking about starting an advocacy nonprofit for orphans. I went through so much, trying to get the right services, and had so many doors slammed in my face. There were times when I sat in waiting rooms by myself crying and not knowing what the outcome would be. I want to make it easier for the next person and help with their transition.
I’ve never had any regrets taking in my siblings. When times got hard, I would always think of my mom and everything would just work out. She was awesome and I know she wanted the best for us. We had an extraordinary relationship. If she could see me today, I think she would pat me on the back and say, “Job well done.”