From the outside, the house Yolanda Williams shares with her seven children looks just like the others in the quiet, gated Cutler Landings neighborhood in Homestead. A Christmas wreath hangs on the door. The small yard is well-manicured. A barbecue grill and a rubber kickball sit out back.
But step inside, walk past the living room cases overflowing with the kids’ academic awards, take a peek into the bedrooms, and there lies the heartbreaking evidence of the Williams family’s hard-knock life.
There are no beds. Just mattresses on the floor, covered in mismatched sheets and faded, frayed comforters.
Eighteen-year-old Darius, a math whiz at Homestead High headed to the Air Force, sleeps on one mattress with 8-year-old Wayne. Seventeen-year-old Kayla, who dreams of attending Bethune-Cookman University, shares a room with 13-year-old Diana, an honor roll student and basketball player at Mandarin Lakes K-8 Academy. Six-year-old Shalonda shares a mattress with 5-year-old Sharhonda. And 3-year-old Joshua sleeps with Mom.
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They have no rugs. Their walls are bare, except for their crayon drawings and a Student Pledge poster their mother makes them read every morning before heading to school.
Not that any of the kids are complaining. They’ve learned better. Their mother reminds them they are blessed to have a roof over their heads and food on the table, even if they have to sleep on the floor. If she has to turn off the air conditioning to save money, she tells them they are blessed to have paper to fan themselves with.
They’ve grown accustomed to cheap fun: hotdogs on the grill, kickball, tag, singing, dancing, drumming on buckets, cooking, hair and nail makeovers.
They don’t bother asking for cellphones, Xboxes, and iPads because they know how much it hurts their mother that she can’t afford such luxuries. But the Williams kids do confess that atop their Christmas wish list are bunk beds, bedding, and towels — preferably in purples and pinks for the girls and red and black (Heat colors) for the boys. They are also in desperate need of a desktop computer and printer to do their homework, so they don’t have to rely on neighbors and the public library.
Williams, 36, is a cafeteria worker at Mandarin Lakes K-8 Academy and does babysitting on the side. The two fathers of the children are not involved, so she scrapes by with help from a forgiving landlord, generous neighbors and government aid. The past three months have been particularly hard because she broke her hand and was required to take medical leave. She is eager to get back to work when school resumes Jan. 7.
The kids at school know her as “Miss Nicole (her middle name)’’ and she constantly asks the students to show her their report cards. She scolds them when their grades slip.
Williams concedes she made many poor life choices since her days as a cheerleader and junior varsity basketball player at Southridge High. She got pregnant at 18, got a fast-food job to help pay the bills, had a few more kids, and “I’ve been trying to pick myself up since then. But every time I take two steps forward, I get knocked eight steps back. But I keep going. There is always light at the end of the tunnel.’’
She is doing her best to make up for mistakes and insisting her children excel in the classroom and aim for college degrees.
“In my house, when you come home, your first thing you do is get to your homework, get to the table,’’ she said. “No outside, no games, no TV, no radio. You may have a sandwich and a cookie and get that homework done. After homework, we have chores. Each one is assigned to a chore in the house to earn extra things when I come up with extra money. They stay on task.’’
She has very strict rules.
“Nobody’s allowed in our house when I’m not here,’’ she said. “They’re not allowed to go to parties. They’re not allowed to sleep over anywhere unless I know the parents and am comfortable with the situation, especially my girls. There’s too much happening in the world today with our girls and young ladies. And I stress that hard, even the girls who walk through my door, from the little ones on up. Ladies, sit with your legs closed, if you got on a skirt, put some shorts on. My boys keep their pants pulled up on their behinds, no hanging off, none of that.
“This generation right here, education’s going to be key. That’s my main thing. When those grades are not right, and they’re slipping, I make them get a book and write “Yes, I will keep up. Yes, I want to succeed.’’
From the time the children were toddlers, she made them reading and math flash cards. She makes them watch world news on CNN. Every day she makes them read a Student Pledge that states: “I believe that I can learn, so I will study and complete my work. I believe in myself, that I can achieve and be successful. So, I will have a great day today on my way to becoming the best that I can be.’’
Williams’ home is like a camp on weekends. Neighborhood kids and nieces and nephews love to visit and participate in her karaoke contests, kickball tournaments, movie nights, and culinary classes “they are like my sous chefs, peeling and prepping while I show them how to cook.’’ (She could use some new pots and pans, but insists the bunk beds are the priority.)
“After all the hard work is done, then we can play. We can barbecue, yell, scream, dance,’’ she said.
The night is yours, as long as you got your work done during the week.”
Williams admits the financial burden of raising seven kids stresses her to the point of tearful nights.
“It’s very stressful and it hurts because I know they see other children with stuff and even when they’re doing good, I want to get it, but I can’t,’’ she said, breaking down as tears ran down her cheeks. “A lot of times I cry. I never had it, I want them to have. That’s why I tell them, go get your education. When you go out there in the world, you won’t have to suffer. Anything you see in the store, you’ll be able to buy it. You won’t have to go steal it. My girls won’t have to sell themselves to try to get it.
“My job will be done when I see all seven walk across that stage with their diplomas. I tell the Lord to get me there, and then, he can take me home. I’ll know then that at least I gave them a notch on their belts to have a life better than mine.’’