Without much fuss, Jerald slipped off the couch he shared with his mom and sister and then slipped out of the room.
He was just as inconspicuous as he had been while sitting for 30 minutes or so as I asked questions about the trio’s improbable life in Youngstown. I hadn’t really noticed he left.
As I had asked questions, I was coughing and sniffling my way through the onset of a cold.
Jerald returned to the room and handed me a tissue.
“Here ... it’s for your cold,” said Jerald, an eighth- grader.
A good kid, that Jerald: Aware, respectful, well- spoken and well-mannered.
His sister Jazmere, a seventh-grader, matches Jerald with respect, manners and poise but is a tad quieter.
Given how they live now, you could excuse them for being completely opposite.
But how they live now, as tough as it is, is a heck of a lot better than how they lived just a few years ago.
Tanya Burt says she’s always making “a plan” for herself and her two kids.
“You gotta have a plan,” she said.
You could dissect her plans and find that some of her choices weren’t the best. But you’d also find evidence of a great mind with great resiliency and a person who got caught up in an endless cycle of poverty, rentals and pay-day loans.
The cycle began with a young pregnancy 12 years ago.
The first plan was Tanya, her mom and sisters moving from New Jersey to Delaware to get a fresh start. That fresh start soon dead-ended.
The kids’ dad had, too, made a fresh start in Defiance, Ohio. It wasn’t a good relationship for Tanya, but it was an option when Delaware failed. Soon after, he was laid off, and it was clear Defiance was not going to last as a plan.
She found Youngstown in 2006 by mishap, when her car broke down here after a quick trip back to Jersey. She was solo that first time. Her first night was on a park bench, and eventually, she found the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley. She would find it again.
In that week’s time, she befriended some people here who helped her get the kids out of Defiance.
Her first Youngstown residence was sharing a flat with six people. It was not a good place.
“There was this bigger kid who kept playing with my games,” remembers Jerald. Tanya found a shelter in Warren that was going to help the family.
But good luck landed her a job at a Youngstown health-care agency. So she moved the family into the Youngstown mission.
That shuffle had the kids in three school districts in about a week’s time.
But with the job and shelter at the mission, her latest plan had traction, albeit fragile.
“I would walk by those boarded up homes [near the mission] and wonder which ones we’d have to move into if this plan failed,” she said.
She eventually settled into one Youngstown rental of her own, and then after a year, to a better rental in 2008. It’s where they live now, and she’s been employed with the same medical group for just as long.
But just as sustaining is her debt.
Her rent-to-own furniture is finally owned. Their first refrigerator was a mini-fridge. Four fridges later, this one works. The last thing they fund is food, and she threw up her hands.
“It’s $20 here and there that feeds us,” she said.
“I don’t want to be rich. I just want to be able to answer the phone and not have someone chasing me for money,” Tanya said. Payday loans cover a bill here and there, and the cycle continues.
It would be fair to question that, with a blank check for a clean start, if she would just get herself back into the cycle. After all, it’s all she’s known. But she has a moxie and a resolve that suggests that with a chance, she could stay out.
That resolve protected her kids from even knowing they were homeless.
“I knew we lived in the mission, but I never knew that meant we were homeless,” said Jerald, who pulled out book after book of artwork.
I was prepared to politely tell him it was good. And then I saw it.
The kid is talented.
It’s Jerald and Jaz who fuel Tanya’s resolve.
“I look at them, and I know I just have to make it work,” she said.
A co-worker learned about Tanya’s struggles a few years ago. That was Jaime Hughes, who helped Tanya ensure there was a Christmas in 2009. Hughes also ensured Tanya’s Christmas last year. And with that, Hughes, a junior at Youngstown State University, had officially begun her modest Adopt-An-Angel gift drive that, this year, has six families.
It’s how I bumped into Jaime and, eventually this week, Tanya.
Both, you could say, are a work-in-progress — full of dreams, hope and moxie. With open minds and hearts, they’re giving kids like Jerald and Jaz a chance to not be part of the cycle.
Go to my blog today on vindy.com to link up with more info on Jaime’s efforts.
You also can learn more about the Salvation Army’s urgent needs to help make the holidays better for more of the Mahoning Valley’s children.
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs, too, on vindy.com.