The Montessori Academy at the Center for the Homeless in South Bend, Indiana, is exactly as inspiring and unique as it sounds. As a Montessori classroom built to serve children living with homelessness, it’s the first and only of its kind —and yet, it’s also a return to the true roots of Maria Montessori, who began her work with children living in poverty in Rome.
I’ve written before about my love of podcasts, and that’s how I first heard about this amazing school. Scott Carrier, the host of Home of the Brave, met a woman outside a Bernie Sanders rally, and asked what had brought her there. As soon as I heard Porzia Micou say she was the director the Montessori Academy at the Center for the Homeless, I put aside the meal I was preparing, turned up the volume, and payed attention.
Porzia’s story was so compelling, her communication so clear and graceful — I needed to know more about her and her work. And I’d love to introduce you to her, as well. Here’s our conversation:
M: How did you first connect with the Montessori philosophy?
Porzia: About 10 years ago my nephew attended the Montessori Academy located in Mishawaka IN. It is the number one private school in our area and the only dually accredited Montessori school in Indiana. The Academy was the second school in the nation to receive AMS accreditation. These facts, along with witnessing firsthand the quality of education my nephew received, brought me into the world of Montessori.
How long have you been at the Montessori Academy at the Center for the Homeless?
Five years ago, I was given the opportunity to work at the Academy’s classroom located at the South Bend Center for the Homeless. I began as an assistant and later received my credentials through AMS as a 3-6 year old guide.
How many students attend the school?
Due to the nature of the population we serve, we experience a constant shift in numbers. When our parents leave the Center, the children are still able to attend our program. We have a few children who stay to complete the three year cycle. Some are only with us for days, weeks or months at a time. Issues with transportation, family structure and relocation usually determine retention rates. We strive to create a stable, nurturing environment for all who enter the program. Presently, we have 9 children enrolled — five who live at the center, four who live elsewhere.
How does the Montessori method support the children who attend at your school?
Throughout my time at the Center, I have seen certain commonalities among the adults living here, and central to these are a lack of independence and a sense of inner peace. Everything that we do in our environment focuses on instilling those traits early on.
During the orientation process, I ask every child “whose classroom is this?” I usually get the response: “yours!” With that I say, “This is your classroom, this is your space, it belongs to you.” Many seem shocked by this as they have never had anything to call their own. There is a different sort of value in caring for something that is your own.
During the day, the upkeep of the environment is the responsibility of the child. They do their own dishes, prepare light meals, clean and fold laundry. These are basic but necessary skills needed to become self-sufficient as an adult.
Everything that we do and say to each other is based on peace and respect. I recognize that many of our children come from places that are not ideal. For some, the classroom is an outlet, a safe place where they get some reprieve from the chaos that is home. The order and structure of the materials and environment is instills a deep security within the child.
How is your classroom like any Montessori class?
The principals are the same as any other classroom. We achieve normalcy by having a core group of children that have been here for some time. They usually set the standard and model appropriate classroom behaviors.
How is it different?
Because we are a part of an organization that relies heavily on donations, there is a constant stream of traffic from the community. In order to make this less distracting, we encourage our children to say “Welcome to our classroom” then continue to work. Many of the side effects of homelessness, as it relates to children, manifest in our environment.
We have to be sensitive to those matters and meet the children where they are. Science has shown us that, in order for people to thrive, their basic physiological needs must first be met. We see children who have experienced varying degrees of abuse aimed at them or towards a parent, housing crisis and insecurities about having enough to eat. Many are suffering from trauma related disorders based on their past. We see these extremes along with intact, otherwise stable family units who are experiencing temporary hardships.
In 2012, at age 29, Porzia found a lump in her left breast. Uninsured and misdiagnosed, over the next three years, that lump eventually grew to the size of a golf ball.
Can you tell me about your breast cancer diagnosis, recovery and the aftermath of that journey?
In the winter of 2014, my fiancé came home with a piece of mail and stated that he added me to his health insurance. The definition of a spouse has changed recently and I was able to be insured under his plan. Coverage started the next spring (2015). I scheduled an appointment with who I thought was a reputable physician. By this time the mass on my chest was the size of a golf ball. She performed another cursory exam, asked me what the other physician had said, and agreed that it was a cyst. She told me to monitor it and call her if anything changed. My option in the future would be to have it drained… Because my pap smear came back normal, new guidelines state that I come back in two years, not yearly as it was before. By June of 2015, I was becoming increasingly worried. I had sharp pains and woke up every night with a voice telling me to go back. Much to her dismay, the doctor agreed to see me again. When she walked in, I opened my gown and she gasped. “Have you ever had an ultrasound, have you ever been biopsied?” I replied: “No, you told me everything was fine and to come back in two years…” Nothing was the same after that. I was sent for a mammogram soon after. The attendant confided in me that if something appeared off, I would have an ultrasound immediately after. Sure enough, the mammogram spotted a problem and I was sent to have an ultrasound. The attendant in that department told me that if they spotted anything wrong, the Radiologist would come in to speak with me. After a couple of minutes he entered, looked at the screen and then at me. He demanded to know who my previous doctors were and informed me that I had a tumor –not a cyst. I scheduled a trip to Savannah to be with family and opted not to hear any results until I returned.
In early August of 2015, I was in the classroom getting ready for the start of the year when I received the call from my surgeon. The only memory I have of that moment was walking backwards to find a chair so that I wouldn’t hit the ground. My niece and nephew were with me that day so I felt the need to stay calm. I cried as I told them that it we needed to leave and felt heavy as I lifted myself into the car.
I called my sisters and together we told my mother who collapsed on my kitchen floor. That remains the hardest part of my journey.
We asked my surgeon to come into his office right away. I came in not knowing what to expect. He looked concerned and informed me that I had Stage III triple negative breast cancer. I heard nothing more after that. It was a surreal feeling that day, I felt disconnected. Droves of family and friends came in and out but I wasn’t present. I could not stop crying.
My niece took my hand and reminded me that I promised to take her to the park that day. I remember smiling at her and telling her to grab a sweater, it would be chilly. That one moment defined the way that I would handle the struggles to come. I decided to not be a victim and to fight this with everything that I had in me, and I did! My children who were 11 and 12 at the time handled everything with grace and dignity. They were/ are truly amazing. I started an aggressive chemo treatment schedule which I finished in November 2015. It was everything they said it would be, lost hair, gained weight but it saved me. I opted for a lumpectomy after careful consideration and started radiation shortly after. I had 33 treatments, which were administered to me daily after work. My doctors continue to be amazed at my recovery. I didn’t learn until after the fact that the odds were stacked against me.
In the midst of your own challenges, how do you find the peace and balance you need in order to go into the classroom each day?
I credit the children in my life for saving me. From my girls to my nieces, nephews and all of my wonderful school kids, I never stayed down for long. I think that attitude plays a role in the recovery process. I understand that children are receptive to emotions. If I am feeling sad or emotionally unwell it vibrates through the environment. I had to change the way that I felt about my circumstances in order to stay in a positive frame of mind.
I informed my parents on what was transpiring and told the children only what was necessary. (“I feel tired today, can you work independently?” I take medicine that makes my hair fall out but look at all the pretty scarves I can wear!”) I brought in an old rocking chair and sat there reading stories or giving lessons on my hard days. I didn’t want to miss a day. I was unsure of how my absence would affect the group. Our children, in particular, have issues with abandonment and change. I was obligated to persevere because I had children to support at home and children who depended on my presence at school. I think that all children have an internal peace; I drew a lot of my calm from them.
Porzia’s story — and her passion, her poise, her courage, her grace — is such an inspiration to me. Through incredible hardship, she has continued to show up for the children in her life — both her own, and those she teaches. Though Porzia’s focus now is to look forward to the rest of her life, the aftermath of this battle has been an incredible financial burden on her family. They’ve lost a car, they’ve had to move, and incredibly, Porzia is now saving up to file for bankruptcy.
Porzia’s family have set up a GoFundMe page where you can join me in donating to support Porzia and her family. Many of us raising young children, or working in early education, don’t have a lot to give. But we all have something to share: Please click here and give what you can.