Mother hopes to use experiences to help homeless
By KYLE STUCKER
May. 14, 2018
ROCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Seven months after her homelessness ended, single mother Nicole Van Coppenolle says she is determined to "get things done" to help others struggling with their own forms of housing insecurity.
Van Coppenolle, 24, and her son Aidan, 19 months, moved into a Rochester Housing Authority apartment last October. Before that, she had spent time couch-surfing and living in a tent before moving into New Generation, a Greenland shelter for pregnant and parenting homeless women.
Without the various help and kindness she received along the way, Van Coppenolle believes she'd still be in a tent. That's why she's made it her mission over the past seven months to pay it forward every way she can, donating supplies, diapers and time to New Generation despite her limited finances. It's also why she'll be the featured speaker at New Generation's annual fundraising gala May 18, sharing the stage with New Hampshire first lady Valerie Sununu to talk about some important issues facing homeless individuals and families.
"I just feel bad for people who are in tougher situations now, and I want to help," said Van Coppenolle.
Van Coppenolle was one of the individuals Seacoast Media Group profiled as part of the "Homeless on the Seacoast" series in November. She was interviewed on the day she and Aidan, who was 12 months old at the time, moved into a subsidized two-bedroom apartment in the Rochester Housing Authority's Cold Spring Manor development.
It was a jubilant day for Van Coppenolle and her son, who spent most of the interview giggling his way across the large playground immediately behind his new home. While reflecting on the seven months since then, Van Coppenolle said it's been surprising how easily her life is "rolling" now, which she attributed heavily to New Generation and the various support agencies that have continued to provide her with assistance.
That assistance includes an outpouring of community members who saw her story in the paper and reached out to her. Those individuals helped in various ways, from messages of encouragement to donations that made Aidan's Christmas even merrier.
"People were really great," said Van Coppenolle. "I honestly didn't know there were so many good people out there."
It represented a stark contrast from what Van Coppenolle had experienced earlier in her life. Growing up, most of her peers and teachers thought she was dumb and wouldn't amount to anything because of her hereditary retinoblastoma and cataracts, due to which she's legally blind. It wasn't until her senior year at Newmarket Junior-Senior High School that a teacher told her she could be doing better, which she said changed her life.
Van Coppenolle found herself homeless in 2017 after she and her mom moved out of an overcrowded house they had shared with multiple generations of their family. They began tenting because they couldn't find an affordable apartment in the area. Soon after, Van Coppenolle found New Generation, which helped her line up a part-time job at the Greenland Target and taught her various life skills in addition to providing her and her son shelter.
Van Coppenolle hopes to one day become an accountant. Since Seacoast Media Group last interviewed her, she's been able to transfer to the Somersworth Target — a big victory, as Van Coppenolle must rely on the area's public transit and local transportation services because of her legal blindness. She also volunteers up to 12 hours a week in the Rochester city clerk's office to gain office experience, recently started an online bookkeeping class through Granite State College, and hopes to pursue an accounting degree after completing that class.
Aside from transportation, Van Coppenolle said the biggest hurdle she faces is that offices and organizations along local bus routes haven't been willing to take a chance on her because of her limited bookkeeping experience. She's also still adjusting to living independently, although she said things are much better than they were during the first month in her apartment.
"At first it was like, 'I don't have anyone to spend my days and nights with,'" said Van Coppenolle. "I was used to someone being in the house with me. It just felt weird."
That sense of loneliness and disconnectedness is a common feeling that can prevent some homeless individuals from leaving their tenting and couch-surfing situations, local shelter officials have said.
Van Coppenolle has also been working with Valerie Sununu, the wife of Gov. Chris Sununu, as part of the first lady's child literacy initiative. Van Coppenolle has difficulty reading to Aidan due to her retinoblastoma. Valerie has helped provide techniques Van Coppenolle can use to help foster Aidan's learning and development, which Van Coppenolle said has come a long way thanks to Valerie and Aidan's teachers at Rochester Child Care Center.
New Generation Executive Director Donna Marsh said the connection between Van Coppenolle and Sununu made them perfect choices to be featured speakers at the shelter's annual fundraising event, which will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. May 18 at Portsmouth Harbor Events and Conference Center. This year's goal is to beat the $90,000 the shelter raised last year. Marsh said she's optimistic as tickets for the event are close to selling out for the first time.
Even without the connection between Van Coppenolle and Sununu, Marsh said New Generation is thrilled Van Coppenolle will speak because she embodies the compassionate and driven individuals the shelter tries to empower every day.
"You have no idea how many times at the shelter I say, 'Can we get Nicole to move back in?'" Marsh said, adding New Generation would hire Van Coppenolle if she were able to find housing closer to the shelter. "She's flourishing and she is working so hard, and she's an amazing mother. She's also more generous than people with substantial means. She's constantly wanting to give back to us."
Information from: Foster's Daily Democrat, http://www.fosters.com