“I worked with children for years but I had never worked with babies born with drugs in their system until I came to SHIELDS for Families…”

In 1991, during her lunch break, curiosity got the best of Esther Hardaway as she decided to walk into a broken down trailer to see what was going on inside. What she found was a new program at King Drew Hospital seeking to combat the drug epidemic that had just hit South Los Angeles in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. This program, SHIELDS for Families, came about through the efforts of Dr. Xylina Bean and co-founders Kathy Icenhower and Norma Mtume, who believed they could heal women and children from the effects of drugs through providing innovative substance abuse treatment for the entire family that included comprehensive services for mental health and child and youth development.

Dr. Kathy Icenhower remembers Esther walking into the trailer that day, “she asked what we were doing there and told us she’d worked with children for years. It was like it was meant to be, we hadn’t even started hiring yet but it seemed she was called to us. She ended up being our very first employee and she still works here today over 20 years later.”

“I wanted to be a part of helping the women and their babies get their lives together”, says Esther of why she decided to take a chance on this new program. “When I started at SHIELDS I saw drug-exposed babies up close and personal for the first time and my heart broke as their little bodies would shake and they’d cry so loudly. So I gave them warm baths with oil in the water, powdered their bottoms, put them in fresh diapers and rubbed them down with lotion to make them feel good. Then, I would swaddle them really tight, hold them close, and sing softly in their ear to help sooth them. I just nurtured them, showed them love and care as their moms got healthy too.”

SHIELDS has been instrumental in helping thousands of mothers and their children get sober, healthy, reunited, and self-sufficient as a stronger, stable family unit. Esther pointed out that what she’s seen change over the years since SHIELDS first began is how they are helping mothers earlier – during pregnancy – “the mothers are more informed ahead of time about health and parenting so we aren’t seeing as many babies born prenatally exposed to drugs, which is a good thing”.

Esther has a rich history at SHIELDS, beginning in the aptly named Genesis Program, to the Exodus Program, and to the Healthy Start Program where she works today. She says she cannot guess the number of babies she’s worked with, probably thousands, and says the proof is in the fact that “everywhere I go people remember me and it feels so good to see them clean and sober and to hear stories of how the babies grew up to go on to college and have healthy families of their own. I just hope everyone remembers me for being a fair, loving, and caring person to not only the babies, but to their mothers and my co-workers as well.”

As National Women’s History Month and National Social Work Month comes to a close, SHIELDS for Families thanks Esther Hardaway for her 22 years of service and dedication!

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