In December 2017, a blind father and his precocious daughter fled a troubled southern past in hopes of a better life in New York City.
With a little bit of help, Jayson Harell and 12-year-old Heaven found exactly what they sought.
“We’re the best team,” says a happy Heaven, flashing a thumbs-up about their unlikely and triumphant trip.
Their trip north came from necessity. The Harrells were living in Brevard County, Fla., when their run of back luck began. Heaven’s mother, afflicted with mental issues, disappeared from the family picture. And Jayson’s eyesight was failing due to a degenerative disease called cone dystrophy.
A helping hand from relatives in North Carolina turned into a gut punch for Jayson and his little girl. The two relocated to Durham, N.C., but Jayson remembers the invitation wasn’t entirely altruistic.
The family members were partly motivated by a chance to get their hands on Jayson’s Supplementary Security Income money, and they treated each other and the new arrivals with a lack of respect, recalled the 53-year-old Harrell.
“I saw they were violent and abusive to each other,” he recounted.
The tipping point came when Heaven’s older half-brother, executing a wrestling move he’d seen on TV, broke her arm and cracked her shoulder so severely that she needed surgery. The unsympathetic Carolina kin accused Heaven of overreacting, while Jayson spent the night with his daughter in the hospital.
“I just assumed someone would call from where we were staying to see how she was doing,” he recalled, “and nothing.”
The snub triggered something inside Harrell.
“I’m trapped right now, but I’m going to start laying plans,” he remembers thinking. Three years later, the pair headed north for the city and spent their first night in New York together at the airport.
“It was a lot of sensory overload,” recalled Jayson, while Heaven remembered eating dry ramen noodles from a cup.
But any obstacles were accompanied by a sense of relief.
A day later the two headed to Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing in the Bronx, the city’s intake center for homeless families with children. They landed in a shelter called the Regent Family Residencies, where the exhausted pair slept for an entire day.
When they awoke, the Regent provided father and daughter with the support they needed.
“I felt safe, and I knew she felt safe,” said Harrell. “For what we had been through, it put us on a good track.”
The shelter is operated by Volunteers of America-Greater New York, which helped the Harrells find permanent housing. The pair now live in Harlem, close to where Heaven attends the Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Dad is endlessly proud of his daughter, who is a multi-instrumentalist, knits, draws and creates masks and stop-motion animations.
“They’re pretty remarkable people,” said Tere Pettitt, president and CEO of VOA in New York. “I think they are shining examples of what compassion, commitment and commitment to others can achieve.”
Jayson, whose last job before losing his sight was operations supervisor at Nokia, is now returning to class through Catholic Charities in hopes of earning his certificate in engineering.
“You used to help me with my homework,” Heaven told her dad. “And now I’m helping you with your homework.”
Jayson is quick to return the compliment: “I picked up that sense of learning from her when she was a toddler,” when father and daughter learned Braille together.
The two, after enduring so much, are constantly joking and whispering. Heaven kids her Dad about being “old”, while he boasts about all her accomplishments.