By Kayla Sosa | Photography by Two Eagles Marcus
In early 2016, Tabitha Williams was rushing her youngest daughter to the emergency room. She was having an asthma attack, and a few minutes later, she became unresponsive. Before she was told anything, Williams, a CNA-certified home health aide, knew what was going on.
Thankfully, her 5-year-old daughter was treated and survived, but Williams was faced with a harsh reality check about her daughter’s health and what may have caused that attack. Living in a home built before 1978 can mean a risk for lead in paint. With dust being stirred up in the house, and lead found in her soil, Williams found out her children’s asthma was being aggravated by the lead around them.
Since two of Williams’ nine children have asthma,
she stepped up to the plate to educate herself and others about the dangers of lead paint and what to
do about it. Extending off of the Healthy Homes Coalition is Parents for Healthy Homes (PFHH), a group of parents, grandparents and community members led by Williams who are all concerned about the health of children in the community. The group meets monthly to discuss issues and action, goes door-to-door informing the community and meets with public officials.
“The main issue we started to talk about was lead and how the 49507 area was the highest — even higher than Flint — with lead-poisoned children,” Williams said.
The 49507 area code reaches from Franklin Street to 28th Street and covers the Madison Square, Alger Heights, Burton Heights, Oakdale and Garfield Park neighborhoods.
“It’s a low-income based community,” Williams expressed. “We don’t like to use that word, low-income, but that’s reality. It’s no surprise that that same side is affected by lead because of the condition of the housing.”
So, the group began to alert community members about the alarming lead issue, and soon it became the main focus.
“That still is our focus, but we had to back up a little bit, because we found that parents didn’t even understand that it was an issue and how it enters the home or the body,” Williams said. “So we went back to educating.”
I hope parents identify their voice and interests, and the power they have.”
Williams said the keywords for the group are “educate, involve and advocate.” The group focuses on educating the community about healthy housing and hazards in the home, while building a network of parents and neighbors who support each other.
“First, we had to get people into meetings,” Williams explained. “We did that by door-knocking, and we found that people don’t trust people they don’t know, so we started saying, ‘Bring a friend to the meetings.’”
The monthly meetings consist of discussing the problems with housing hazards and the steps to take to solve them. Additionally, the the group supports parents by providing daycare, food and transportation.
Stemming off what Williams quickly learned after her daughter’s severe asthma attack, parents are taught various cleaning techniques and ways to avoid making a lead-presence worse.
While there is no one simple solution, Williams and her co-organizers are working diligently talking to lawmakers and attending city commission meetings to find one. They are advocating for all homes built before 1978 have to be tested for lead, and holding owners/landlords responsible for removing the lead and upgrading the home. Williams emphasizes that they also want to provide resources and education for landlords.
“We’re asking for all homes to be tested, and eventually all children to be tested,” Williams said. “These kids are being poisoned, they’re forever yours. We want these landlords to have some accountability. They have to fix these homes up by a certain time.”
Currently, children only get tested for lead if their parent or guardian asks for it, and the symptoms for lead poisoning are often mistaken for side effects of common illness, such as nausea, loss of appetite and headaches.
For all her hard work over the past two years, Williams was recently recognized by receiving the West Michigan Environmental Action Council Woman of Hope award for her work with PFHH. Williams said she felt honored to receive the award, and hopes feel empowered to advocate for their children.
“I hope parents identify their voice and interests, and the power they have,” Williams expressed.
Mary Robinson is the director of development for WMEAC, and helped select Williams as the winner of her award, which she described as a “hidden heroine” award.
Robinson said Williams has an authentic energy and passion with this issue and has helped bridge the gap in the community in educating others. Even though she works full time and is a mother to nine children, Williams is still pioneering this effort, driving community members to meetings and doing community service for anyone she can.
“Change starts at the individual level,” Robinson said. “To have community organizations with representatives that are members of those communities, those are the people who are going to make the change.”
To get involved with Parents for Healthy Homes, visit their website, healthyhomescoalition.org/PFHH or call 616-241-3300.
Need to Know Facts About Lead:
Lead is a metal and does not belong in your body.
Children aged 1-5 are the most at-risk due to rapid development and hand-in-mouth behavior.
Houses built before 1978 used lead- based paint.
Lead poisoning can cause learning difficulties, behavioral issues, violent tendencies, ADHD symptoms, memory loss and hyperactivity.
In West Michigan, there is no law to test all children for lead, and no law that requires landlords to check homes for lead.
60 percent of children tested positive for lead live in rental properties.
Children come in contact with the lead through dust and paint chips.
Proactive Cleaning Tips for at-Risk Homes:
Always “wet clean” — use wet cloths, paper towels or mops. Dry items throw possible lead dust around.
Clean from top to bottom.
Focus on window sills and window wells.
Wet clean anything kids touch a lot.
Wet clean weekly.
Wipe/mop in an S-shape to confine dust or paint chips. Use a two sided bucket for mopping, and change water frequently.
Clean one area at a time and close off the room so the dust does not circulate or contaminate another room. Keep children away while cleaning.
Do maintenance checks looking for peeling paint and settled dust.
Take shoes off in home. Keep children’s toys off of the floor.
Call landlord immediately when you see a lead hazard.