By Pauletta Hansel
This blog post is very personal to me. It is a tribute to two of the most loving and industrious women I have ever known: my mother, Larnie Lewis Hansel, who died six years ago on January 7, 2018, and Shenise Mincy, who provided loving care to Mom in her final years. The occasion of this post is that I am working with Shenise to help her take the next step in her professional caregiving journey, Larnie’s Love Home Care. It seems like a great opportunity to write more about both Larnie Hansel and Shenise Mincy within the context of what has traditionally been “women’s work.”
Women’s work is whatever an individual woman makes it. But often the work of caregiving is not valued, despite its necessity, in part because it has traditionally fallen to women. Here are two women who chose to make careers of caring, and through these careers, to build wealth for their families—not wealth in terms of riches, but in terms of financial stability and growth. I believe their stories are worth telling.
Both Larnie (AKA “Mom”) and Shenise could be described as urban Appalachian women, though neither called herself that. Mom was born in Leslie County, Kentucky and lived in southeastern Kentucky her entire life until my dad became ill in 2006, and they moved to Cincinnati to be closer to me. Shenise’s grandmother was born in Cedartown, in Polk County, Georgia, which is well within the Appalachian Mountain region. She left in 1945 as part of the Great Migration of southern African Americans to the industrial Midwest.
Mom did consider herself Appalachian; she was a staunch defender of mountain people, and was active in several programs of the Urban Appalachian Council, precursor to the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. She just didn’t think of herself as urban. Shenise’s family were aware of their Cedartown roots, and Shenise felt like she has always had a bit of a “southern twang” to her voice. Her grandmother never returned to Georgia, but her mom has visited and Shenise hopes to visit soon.
I have written much about my mother in poetry. The book about her life and our journey with her dementia, Palindrome, won the 2017 Weatherford Award for Appalachian poetry. It was after Mom’s death that I came to truly understand how her professional work had not just helped shape her own family’s lives, but also that of dozens of families in Breathitt and nearby counties when she ran Jackson, Kentucky’s first childcare center, Larnie’s Daycare Center, in the 1970s and 80s.
Mom was mostly a “stay-at-home mom” when I was growing up, but she still made a much-needed financial contribution to our family. My father was a professor in small colleges in eastern Kentucky. A common phrase I heard growing up was “in the hole,” meaning in debt. Before we three kids were born, Mom worked at the Newberry’s Department Store in Richmond, Kentucky, where Dad was in school. Later, he would help Civil Rights activists stage a lunch counter sit-in there which resulted in us leaving Richmond—another story for another post! Once we kids started coming, Mom mostly took in sewing as her primary income source—she was a remarkable seamstress, ranging from Barbie costumes to upholstering furniture. She herself provided elder care services to a neighbor in one of the many eastern Kentucky communities we lived in; her shift started after we were all in bed, and she got home in time to make us breakfast and see the oldest two off to school. Once in Jackson, Kentucky, Mom began to provide childcare in our home for a local family.
This was in the early 1970s. It was a “boom” time in southeastern Kentucky due to strip-mining operations, and whatever one might think about strip-mining (I myself am not a fan), the industry temporarily created well-paying jobs for women that had with deep mining been few and far between. The demand for childcare was high and the supply mostly nonexistent. I don’t know all the planning that went into Mom’s decision to move from providing care for one family to providing care for closer to twenty families, from infants to after school care, but it had to be significant. She turned the bottom level of our faculty rental home, which had been first a garage and then the theater department’s storage and rehearsal space, into a fully licensed, equipped, and staffed Larnie’s Daycare Center in what in my memory was a matter of months.
Mom’s decision to translate her “women’s work” of caregiving into a successful business moved our family from financial uncertainty to relative stability. Her income helped pay for our college education and created a small nest egg for my parents which later helped them buy a home. My sibs and I worked at the center. Mom also made it possible for dozens of other women to work and build their careers and their own family’s financial stability.
By 2015, when Shenise Mincy came into our lives, all this was history. Mom was suffering with dementia and a combination of her physical and mental issues required nursing home care. But even in a decent facility with daily visits from family, Mom’s anxiety and other needs meant that additional one-on-one companionship was necessary for her. (This is a huge issue in dementia care which also deserves its own blog post!) Shenise was referred to us by one of mom’s regular aides with whom I had become friends. Between the two of them, they saved our lives!
Shenise’s beginnings in the field were similar to Mom’s in terms of translating what she did well into something that could help both her family and others. She told me, “I was a single mom of a toddler and a teenager. My priority then was keeping a flow of income while maintaining a flexible enough schedule to provide the care needed to my family.” And like Mom, though her own family always needed to come first, Shenise’s genuine care for others is what made it possible to turn what is traditionally a woman’s role in the family, providing care for elders, into her career.
Shenise told me that growing up, she always wanted to be a cosmetologist, but her mother remembers a different goal. She says Shenise told her she wanted to grow up to be a mommy, so she could take care of people. Her first jobs, though, were in customer service; she was so good with clients that she was offered a managerial job at Christ Hospital’s Wendy’s before she was 16, but her parents insisted she turn it down and finish high school instead. She worked in retail after graduation (finally getting that manager position), and at age 20 applied to a home care agency for some extra money.
Shenise worked with her first client for four years, to the amazement of the elderly woman’s doctors and family, who had expected her to die within a few months. Family members praised Shenise’s caregiving skills, saying that they could sleep more easily at night, knowing their loved one was in good care. Shenise notes this positive feedback as setting her on her caregiving course; she had not realized that her loving care was anything special until her gifts were pointed out to her. Mom was Shenise’s second long-term client. Shenise’s calm, personal and steady care was a blessing to Mom and to all of us who loved her. Shenise says, “I’ve always had a giving personality and love helping people. I want to help make a difference in their lives.” And that she surely does.
Shenise sees overlap between the work Mom did and her own. “The very young and the very old are similar. They both have to depend on someone for everything—bathing, dressing, feeding, walking, communicating, etc. Seniors are often without that loving, nurturing caregiver support, but in so many situations they need someone who can provide it. For every client I have worked with I have been that person, whether they have had additional support from family or not.” Shenise has also worked with children, and now has a grandbaby to dote on!
Shenise and I have maintained a friendship since Mom’s death in 2016. A year or so ago we began to explore the possibility of turning Shenise’s work into a business, hopefully recruiting our mutual friend who made the original referral when her nursing course is complete. Shenise is well-versed in how most home care agencies operate, and wants to do it differently, serving those who value personal relationships and can’t always afford the larger agencies, which charge high fees but don’t pay decent salaries. Shenise is developing her business on a smaller scale; she will pay decent wages to her handpicked staff, and train them in the personalized but professional care that her clients value. As one current client says, “Shenise adds a warmth and sparkle to my home.”
Mom’s obituary quotes one of her former “Larnie’s Kids” describing her as being “like a warm blanket of a very cold morning.” Shenise Mincy was that warm blanket for my mom, and for me too, in the care she provided in Mom’s life. I personally know the value that Shenise adds to the lives of the families she serves. My hope is that Shenise and her family can see the same economic value as Mom did by making her chosen “women’s work” work for her. For more information, you can visit our GoFundMe site, Larnie’s Love Home Care.
Pauletta Hansel is a core member of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. Her most recent book is Heartbreak Tree, poems about gender and place in Appalachia, won the Poetry Society of Virginia’s 2023 North American Book Award. Visit her website here.