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It was around Christmas 2018 and Jean Simpkins, 79, was looking out the window of her new three-bedroom apartment. Eleven floors above Washington, D.C., the grandmother of two gazed out at the lights of the city and became overwhelmed with gratitude. "The only thing I could say," Simpkins remembers, "was 'Thank you, Father.'"

Almost a year later, Simpkins still can't help but look at the apartment as a miracle — one she desperately needed. Fifteen years ago, when her grandson was born, she became his primary caregiver. Six years later, when her granddaughter was four, Simpkins was awarded full custody of her, too. She's spent the time since trying to give her grandchildren the life she knows they deserve, which has been difficult on a fixed income. On top of that, Simpkins worried that the neighborhood the family resided in wasn't the best influence on her kids. Something had to change.

Then she learned about Plaza West, a new development created by Mission First housing that would reserve 50 of its apartments specifically for families in which a grandparent or other older adult was raising children who were related to them. The waiting list, Simpkins says, was daunting. There are a great deal of grandfamilies in the D.C. area and she was sure it might be years before she got the call. But soon after applying, she was offered a choice between a two-bedroom and a three-bedroom apartment. She accepted the latter, sight unseen. She knew that each of her grandchildren needed space of their own.

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Ancestry

We're not just a nation of immigrants; each of us is our own walking family tree. At a time when so much seems to keep us apart, developing cross-cultural understanding through shared connections is an increasingly vital way to bridge our societal gaps. It's almost impossible not to feel empathy when we discover that our worlds are actually intertwined.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the renowned Harvard professor and genealogy expert, met with four people from different backgrounds to discuss how genealogy can connect us with people across cultures.

"There's a curious and ironic relationship between identifying your ancestral heritage, which you think might divide you from other people, but finding that it only ties you to other people," Gates says. "Each of our ancestors has a story to tell and it's our job to find them and give them a voice."

Gates connected with Crystal Gonzales, a Hispanic educator originally from New Mexico; Darnell Head, an educator and African American Detroit native; Michelle Mardsen, an African American art teacher from Pennsylvania; and Paula Shagin, a social worker from European Jewish descent. While their backgrounds were different, they all had one thing in common – a thirst to discover their family's origins.

Ancestry

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Darnell and Leslie Henson

Darnell Henson doesn't keep track of the date — it's just something he's never been good at — but he'll never forget February 23rd, 2018. It was nearly three o'clock in the morning when he awoke with a horrible pain in his stomach. His first thought: food poisoning. Darnell's wife, Leslie, had brought him a sandwich from work and he was certain it didn't agree with him. So he downed some Pepto-Bismol and hoped for the best. But an hour later, the pain had engulfed him. "This is not food poisoning," Darnell remembers thinking. "It's got to be more."

The pain grew every second. Soon, Darnell couldn't get up off the floor. He'd suffered a broken leg when he was younger and that pain was torture, but the pain he was feeling now was like nothing he'd ever experienced. He woke his wife and she rushed him to the emergency room where doctors ran tests all through the night. Darnell and Leslie were terrified.

Darnell remembers a doctor coming in to speak with them. She delivered news that would turn the Hensons' life upside down: Darnell had kidney cancer that had spread to his lungs. Soon after, doctors found six tumors on his brain, and then a mass on his hip. His cancer, he was told, had progressed to stage four.

"How much time do I have?" Darnell asked his doctor. He was told in March 2018 that he might have two, maybe three years left. Later that year, in August, the doctor told him he thought he was only going to live for four more months. These were some of the darkest days of his life, Darnell recalls. Then he lost his insurance and he and Leslie began to get really scared. They were being asked about wills, trusts, and advanced health directives. But the truth was, they had none of these things in place and hiring a lawyer was out of the question. The couple simply didn't have the funds.

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After four years of teaching, Stephanie Hosansky felt prepared to tackle any challenges the new school year might bring. She had instilled harmony in difficult classroom environments, counseled concerned parents about their children's performance, and worked many late evenings creating lesson plans that would challenge and inspire her students.

As she entered her fifth year in education, she was confident and excited – especially since she would begin the year at a different school with a new group of eager, young students. However, after a few weeks at Hardy Williams Elementary in Southwest Philadelphia, for the first time in her career, Hosansky began to doubt her ability as a teacher.

Her students came from varied backgrounds, many from communities affected by violence and poverty. She quickly realized that these external factors, which were circumstances beyond her and her students' control, often impacted their ability to succeed in the classroom. Students had a hard time maintaining focus on their assignments, there were several incidents of bullying, and Hosansky sensed her new students were skeptical that she would stick around.

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