Extended family: How friends and neighbors help our kids

Updated
Kyra Smith, 19, a sophomore at Muhlenberg College, runs through the playground at Hope House in Memphis, Tenn. Thursday March 7, 2013, playing with children...
Kyra Smith, 19, a sophomore at Muhlenberg College, runs through the playground at Hope House in Memphis, Tenn. Thursday March 7, 2013, playing with children...
AP Photo/The Commercial Appeal, Mike Brown

When Teresa Alabi and her husband had their first child, “the reality of the cost of daycare set in quickly,” she remembered. Daycare costs in Columbus, Ohio, were as much as $1,200 a month.

“Even with both of our full-time jobs, we could not afford that cost because of our student loan debt. It is because of the kindness of my mother-in-law,” she wrote in a letter to host Melissa Harris-Perry, “that we are both able to continue to work and have our daughter cared for in the way that we desire.”

Hundreds of people responded, using email, Facebook and Twitter, to Harris-Perry’s call to share their experiences of raising children within communities that extend beyond their immediate families. Parents, teachers, childcare providers, and others wrote deeply personal anecdotes about the roles they played, and continue to play, in creating communities that provide “safe places to play, quality food to eat, terrific schools to attend, and economic opportunities to support them.”

The vast majority of parents spoke glowingly of their friends and extended families. Many told stories almost identical to that of Alabi, who made it clear that her family’s economic security depended on the support of her husband’s parents.

Angela Davis of Henrico, VA., recalled being a young single mother fighting against cultural expectations.

“I had my first child at the age of 22 and I was so scared about how I was going to make it. I had to leave college in my 4th year to have her, and I was shamed for living at home.” Her father offered help, telling her: We are here and we can help you raise this little girl.  There is no need to struggle.

“I will always be so thankful that my parents helped me raise my daughter,” she wrote. “I would not have done it any differently!”

Donna Greene of California’s Riverside County highlighted how important her extended community network was in helping her raise her child after a series of major life changes.

“When I was a young mother, my husband and I divorced. I did not live near extended family, and I had to finish college and work several jobs in order to make a living wage for myself and my son,” Greene said. “Without my neighbors, who provided child care in the evenings for me, feeding my son and making him feel at home and welcome, I would not have been able to take the classes I needed to graduate.”

Neighbors hung Christmas lights on her home and helped bring in a tree. They taught her son to tie his shoes. “I could continue this list for a while, but the reality is my son had many interested and loving adults in his life when he was young and we both needed support.”

“Without those friends and neighbors, I would have had to uproot my child. Would we have been okay? Probably. But I know that my son’s life and certainly my life were both made richer by the loving and caring community we lived in. Every child deserves to know that there is a safe and loving community of people who want him or her to thrive.”

The cost and strain of illness and disability can take a huge toll on American families, but a solid community safety net is invaluable. It’s easy to forget that something as simple as teaching a kid to ride a bike might not be possible without help, as Kate Carey, of St. Paul, Minn., pointed out in her letter.

“I have a beautiful, smart 14 year old. I also have a chronic and eventually terminal illness and am in a wheelchair,” Carey wrote to Harris-Perry. “My friends have banded themselves around my daughter in such a loving way. She wouldn’t be developing into the wonderful woman I see coming if it were not for them.”  Three of them have not only taught her how to ride a bike, but they come over just to ride on adventures with her.”

When Carey was in the hospital and later recovering, she “would get a call from one of my friends every Wednesday to tell me who would be taking her over the weekends.”

No one summed up better what it means to be one of the community members who help give children a brighter future than retired teacher Jean Trent.

“I cared for students for more than 30 years; not just their academic skills, but their fears and losses, successes and failures. Since I retired, I care for students as a volunteer tutor at a housing project and as an Audubon volunteer teaching elementary students about nature and their precious environment.”

“I was a child without regular parenting and I would never have become a success without the generosity of others. It’s ours to pass on.”

This Saturday at 10am ET, Melissa Harris-Perry will take an in-depth look  at what it really means to have a collective responsibility for children in America and how we can pass along the generosity that Trent mentioned. You can join the conversation by emailing MHPshow@msnbc.com, and you can find more stories on Twitter at @MHPshow and under the hashtag #caringforchildren and on the MHP Facebook page.

Extended family: How friends and neighbors help our kids

Updated