A Warrior for a Lost Generation

May 26, 2005 -- -- Michael Pressey of the New Jersey division of the Salvation Army says living in Newark is like living in a war zone.

"On any given hour, particularly in the evening when the sun goes down, you come in here, it's like Iraq in here," he said.

But if that's the case, then Pressey is a warrior -- fighting for a lost generation. He helps children who have been abandoned by their parents and raised by their grandparents -- a situation painfully common in Newark.

"A lot of it has to do with incarceration, mental illness, just absenteeism," Pressey said. "But the overall epidemic that hits the city of Newark, and I'm sure is in most urban areas, is violence and drugs."

He also said the state agency in New Jersey charged with protecting children -- the Division of Youth and Family Services -- is sometimes to blame. DYFS works hard to keep families together, but he says sometimes it is too quick to dump children from broken families at grandma's house.

"If you open up that door and you see your grandchild, how could you say no? They don't do it over the phone anymore," he said. "They're playing this guilt game on some grandma."

DYFS director Edward Cotton told "Primetime Live" such procedures were "inappropriate" and would stop. And in the last year, they have.

Words and Actions

Pressey's work has him playing everything from advocate to safety inspector to psychiatrist.

Three years ago, he first visited Rose Green, who was raising her grandson RayVaughn. Green wouldn't let the boy outside because she feared for his safety, but Pressey saw how things on the inside were as dangerous as they were on the outside.

In one room, Pressey found a bare bulb covered with a brown paper bag to act as a shade. "That gets real hot, and this could burn up. And you can burn you and your grandmother out of here. You don't want to do that," he told him.

On subsequent visits, a few hours each month, he noticed Green never kissed or hugged her grandson, no matter how much he begged.

"Ain't used to nobody huggin' me!" Green said.

Pressey learned Green herself had a rough childhood, running away from an orphanage at age 8. "You need to let some of this out," he told her, pressing the woman to show more affection to Ray.

Pressey's role has even made him a family member to some. When Edwina Haig, who was taking care of 10 children and led a support group for caretaker grandmothers, died last year, Pressey spoke at her funeral.

"Edwina taught me in the few brief years that I knew her that there are two choices to any problem: you can choose to live in the problem or you can choose to live in the solution. Edwina always lived in the solution," he said.

Finding Her Voice

Four years ago, Pressey visited great-great-grandmother Okella Foster and the five children she was raising. One of Foster's great, great grand children, Armani, had apparently been so traumatized by her early childhood that she didn't speak to anyone outside the home.

The apartment was cramped, but Pressey said that for Foster and so many other grandmothers in Newark, there was no choice. "Is it the best thing?" he said. "Well, for those children it's the only thing."

The greater worry for Pressey was whether Armani would ever speak. He seemed optimistic. "When she does speak, she'll have a story to tell," he said.

He thought about award-winning poet and author Maya Angelou, who was selectively mute from the time she was 7 until she was 13. Angelou wrote a novel about her chosen silence, called "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."

Angelou has said she kept silent to protect herself -- to keep herself from connecting with anyone by not giving anyone her voice.

But Pressey hoped Armani would outgrow it like Angelou has, and also become known to the world for her powers of expression. "She may grow up to be the next Maya Angelou," he said.

Pressey was recently promoted to manager at the Salvation Army. He does not go door-to-door anymore, but remains involved in the lives of many of Newark's grandparents and grandchildren.