Astoria Figures: The Woman Leading Hour Children

The fastest Alethea Taylor has ever driven is 125 miles per hour, and it was only for a second or so.

“When I got close to 100 and the car started bucking, it was really scary but exhilarating,” she says. “I stayed at 90, where I felt comfortable.”

She’s as new at racecar driving as she is at leading Hour Children, the 35-year-old organization founded by Sister Tesa Fitzgerald that takes incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women in New York State under its wing.

 “I love to drive and experience the freedom behind the wheel,” says Alethea, who joined Hour Children in January as the second executive director in its history.

Mind you, she doesn’t push her leased 2021 Infinity SUV past the legal speed limit despite her daily commute from Hackensack, which she says, takes 30 minutes when there’s no traffic. Which is, of course, never.

It’s the same with her job. She’s taking things at a patient pace, spending time working side by side with staff members at Hour Children’s thrift shops, communal house, food pantry, low-income housing complex and jail and prison programs.

“I’m getting to know how things operate,” says Alethea, who wears her black hair short and her heels high. “I want to see the employees’ and clients’ issues and struggles, and I want them to know me.”

Although Alethea never envisioned herself running Hour Children, she has spent her entire life preparing for the position.

“I didn’t choose this path,” she says. “This path has chosen me.”

Alethea, who is from Browns Town, Jamaica, spent her childhood alternating between her grandparents’ farm and her mother’s apartment in Kingston.

“My father really wasn’t in the picture,” she says.

When she was 8, her mother moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the family, which eventually numbered five children, lived in a one-bedroom apartment. The children slept in two queen-size beds, a bunkbed and a crib, and her mother slept in the living room.

“I’ll never forget when the plane landed, and I ran to my mother,” Alethea says. “She had come here before us, so I hadn’t seen her in a year.”

Coming to New York was, to say the least, a difficult transition for Alethea.

We had accents and didn’t dress like the other kids – our  mother made our clothes,” she says. “We were devout Apostolic Pentecostals – we stayed with people of our own culture. And even though we lived in a community that was predominantly of people of color, people would say things like, ‘You came over here and took our jobs … go back to your own country.’”

Alethea became a dedicated student (she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a minor in women’s studies from Stony Brook University, a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation counseling from New York University, a doctorate of rehabilitation from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and is a certified vocational rehabilitation counselor).

After her first graduation, she went to work for Greenhope Services for Women, which helps formerly incarcerated women who have substance abuse and mental health issues.

Through the years, she worked for Greenhope off and on. When she left it to become a full-time professor at Hunter College, she was the executive director.

“I had worked with Hour Children when I was with Greenhope,” she says. “When five people I knew came to me over a period of three months last year and said I should work there, I took note.”

With Hour Children, she declares that she has found her life’s purpose.

“I want to bring choice and voice to women, who, if they had the opportunities and support, may have made different choices,” she says. “Women who now need their voices heard and who want to – and will – make meaningful choices if given the opportunity.”

One of her priorities will be creating a day-care center for tots through teens, a project her predecessor pushed.

“I also want Hour Children to take more of a lead on social issues connected to our mission,” she says, adding that she has been doing some internal restructuring, placing a priority on inclusion and diversity.

To accomplish all of this, she’s working a superwoman schedule. She laughs when asked whether she puts in 80 hours a week.

It is, she says, far more than that because “I have a lot to catch up on.”

She also has been evaluating her own life. She’s hoping to buy a house in New York City, probably in Queens, that’s spacious enough to accommodate not only her (she’s divorced and doesn’t have children) but also her mother and stepfather.

Lately, she’s been taking some breaks. “I realized that I can’t teach women to take care of themselves if I don’t take care of myself,” she says.

Hence the racecar driving. She’s also exploring kickboxing but admits that she’s not very good at it.

She insists that she’s not the least bit tempted to show off her speed skills on her daily commute.

“I don’t drive fast when I’m in public,” she says as she exchanges her heels for flip-flops for the drive home.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at [email protected];  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

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