I’m a day late, but National Nurses Week ended yesterday. Millions of women and men have taken this road and brought hope and healing to their patients. Thank you. ❤️
This week I had honored Lillian Wald, a nurse who took her skills and passions and developed progressive programs to service the poor at the turn of the 20th century.
Lillian Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement in 1893. A nurse by training, Miss Wald went out into the slums of the Lower East Side and attended to the sick. Through her almost 40 year devotion, she pioneered public health nursing, petitioned for school nurses and nutrition programs in the public schools, and was a fierce advocate for children, fair labor laws, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and peace.
Historical fiction writers often include real people who impacted the time and place of a novel. Featuring a famous figure grounds the reader to an authentic setting. The real person’s accomplishments are weaved into the plot, establishing a “what-if” premise.
The Heart of Street Dreams, Book 2 in my Becoming America’s Stories series, is set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side of 1911. The streets and tenements teemed with immigrants vying for a better life. Most were poor and escaped atrocities, starvation, oppression and hopeless futures in their homeland. America held a light, so they dared to dream.
There were no easy paths, nor streets paved in gold. They landed with a few possessions and began their new life in the tenement neighborhoods that reeked with desperate poverty. Most immigrants met with hate and prejudice. It was a common belief that the poor could not live any better and did not deserve basic support.
We have all heard of immigrant ancestors pulling themselves up from boot straps and applying their grit to achieve the dream. But dreams don’t come true alone. There were programs, policies, incentives, helping hands, and kind contributors who held the greater vision. America could not amass loyal citizens and progress into the 20th century and beyond without aiding the huddled masses that reached her shores. The new Americans needed guidance to navigate language barriers, and access education and healthcare and work in safe and fair industries.
I found Lillian Wald’s mission and presence during this period compelling. I had to include a depiction of Lillian Wald in my middle-grade historical fiction novel. My imagination brought out a narrative that could have happened to my star character, Lily Taglia, and her family and friends in the Mott Street tenements. By the time my fictional characters walked the streets and played out their stories, the real Lillian Wald and Henry Street Settlement were the epicenter for progressive practice and change. The backstage work of the public health nurses and social justice organizations improved immigrants quality of life, allowing for the pursuit of an American dream, and, in turn, provided America with generations of productive citizens.
The Henry Street Settlement exists today and continues to be a community center dedicated to providing educational, cultural, and health care support to the neighborhoods of the Lower East Side. View the history of the Henry Street Settlement and Lillian Wald’s vision HERE.
My book, The Heart of Street Dreams, is a work of fiction inspired by my grandmother’s childhood and American story. I cannot prove that a nurse was part of my grandmother’s past or if she or her family knew of the Henry Street Settlement. However, I like to think that the made-up history of a little girl was influenced by the presence of the Henry Street Settlement, Lillian Wald, and her nurses.
Be kind. Be safe.
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“If you don’t cook with love, you have to get out of the kitchen.” Florence Messina