Randy Martin cried and begged as his grandfather told him to
pack a suitcase. A hell-bent for trouble 11-year-old whose dad had
taken off and whose mother was abusing drugs, Randy was more than
his grandparents could handle. So now he was buckled into the seat
of an airplane, leaving the chaos of his California home for a new
home in Mooseheart, Ill.
His tears continued through the trip and as his grandfather and
aunt left him at Mooseheart, a residential school west of Chicago
for children whose guardians or parents can no longer care for
them. When he wasn't in his bedroom crying, Randy put his fist
through walls, threw chairs and lied to his family teachers. Quick
to anger, he'd storm out of his new home and take off on his
He lasted only a few months in his first home at Mooseheart.
When he moved to another, the situation continued to deteriorate.
Randy didn't want to be around anyone. He literally slammed the
door in the face of anyone who tried to get close.
In October 2002, Randy was transferred to Arizona home at
Mooseheart, where family teacher Ta'merria Ross found herself
confronted with an angry pre-teen who rebuffed all her attempts to
reach him. Convinced she'd bail out on him like everyone else in
his life, Randy escalated his aggression, damaging walls and doors
throughout the house.
On the phone many nights with her mom in Davenport, Iowa,
Ta'merria, a single woman who says she felt called to care for the
boys, would pour out her discouragement. "I'm giving him love and
he's constantly rejecting it," Ta'merria would tell her mom.
Several times Ta'merria considered packing her belongings and
leaving. The only thing that kept her going, she says in
retrospect, was that she was naïve about just how tough it would be
to reach the boys.
"I really didn't know what I was getting into," remembers
Ta'merria of her first days at Mooseheart in April 2002. "It
probably served me well that I didn't know."
Ta'merria had seen the job ad for Mooseheart family teachers in
her local Iowa paper, asking for mission-minded people. Ta'merria,
who worked in a bank during the week and taught Sunday school on
the weekends, felt a strong pull towards mission work. She visited
Mooseheart and decided to take the job of family teacher,
overseeing up to 12 boys in a family-style home.
Ta'merria arrived at the end of the school year, taking on a
house of middle school boys whose family teachers had recently
left. Although the homes usually have a married couple and a single
adult as the family parents, Ta'merria found herself alone with
seven boys. She had two weeks before summer programs started-two
weeks to figure out how to keep the boys busy and learn overnight
how to be a parent.
"It was a trial by fire for me. I was it for these boys," she
says. "I think because my heart was wide open, I was able to do it
because I saw the need. The boys stole my heart right away."
Ta'merria spent her days walking the campus with the boys,
fishing by the pond and working her way into the rhythm of
Mooseheart. She comforted boys who by day were tough as nails but
at night cried for home. She celebrated their birthdays, made
chicken noodle soup when they were sick and held their hands when
they talked to moms who were in jail.
It was here she encountered Randy, one of the few boys she felt
might be beyond her reach.
Until one day when he was 13 and had what Ta'merria calls a
"light bulb moment." Randy took a look at the damage he'd done to
the house around him-not just to the walls and doors but to the
people in his home who'd been hurt emotionally by his angry
Trying to figure out how to turn things around, Randy sat in his
bedroom and drew a picture of a car. On the paper he wrote a note
to Ta'merria-"Let's work together." He headed downstairs and handed
her the note.
"It was a very pivotal time," Ta'merria remembers. She had hoped
Randy would realize she was there to love him. Now he'd opened the
door a crack.
"It's just been sticking with him until he came to the decision
that he needed to change," says Ta'merria of Randy, now 17.
Ta'merria points to Randy as proof that if you love a child
unconditionally, after a while it works out. "Now he works hard and
does his best. We have our moments, but the key is that we love
each other and he knows I'm in his life to support him."
"She acts just like a mom," says Randy. "It warms your heart to
have someone to go to. I've come a long way, especially around
As her boys got older, Ta'merria moved into a new home with
them, called Michigan, for 12- to 18-year-old boys.
Still, Randy wasn't her only challenge. Colton Bullock has a
much more laid back personality; he wouldn't fight Ta'merria
directly but he didn't want to stick with things that proved
Colton was 14 when he came to Mooseheart. His dad was abusive
and his mom was on drugs. "He really needed structure and someone
to love him. He was very open to family," Ta'merria says. "But
believe me, these kids test you. They want to know that you're not
going to leave them like everyone else in their lives."
Colton joined the Mooseheart Ramblers football team in eighth
grade and planned to go out for the high school team. "You can't
quit," Ta'merria told him, knowing that's just what he'd do if the
going got tough.
Sure enough, several days into football training, Colton told
Ta'merria, "I'm done. I'm not going back. I'm hot. I'm tired. I'm
going to pass out."
By now, Ta'merria had learned that the unconditional love she
offered the boys had to include some tough love.
"Fine, I'll go with you," Ta'merria told Colton. "I have my cell
phone and if you pass out, I'll call an ambulance."
Ta'merria and Colton headed to the practice field, but Colton
still had one more card to play. Knowing Ta'merria couldn't come
into the boys' locker room, he headed there and refused to come
out. But he hadn't counted on the team, the boys who lived like
brothers and refused to let him quit. The entire team headed into
the locker room. When they came out, Colton was with them. He
continued through the season, proud of his ability to stick it
Ta'merria has taught the boys to take responsibility for their
behavior and she's set the bar high in the expectations she has for
them. She admits she doesn't cut the boys any slack based on the
hardships they may have faced before coming to Mooseheart.
"I want them to see they're not a victim of circumstance. It's
easy to be defined (by their past)," Ta'merria says. "Still, some
of the circumstances they come out of, I'd struggle too. They need
compassion, structure, unconditional love and for us to support
them and not let them lose their way."
But for a time, Davon Davy lost his way. He came to Mooseheart
when he was 12. His mom and dad weren't around and he'd been living
with his grandparents since he was 4. He ditched school and when he
was there, he didn't bother with homework. The neighborhood gangs
worked hard to recruit him. At Mooseheart, his behavior problems
Although he didn't live in her home, Ta'merria had numerous
interactions with Davon and they weren't pleasant. Deciding he'd
had enough of Mooseheart, he went back home to Evanston. Things
rapidly worsened-Davon stopped going to school and became involved
in some of the trouble plaguing his high-crime neighborhood. As his
life deteriorated, Davon realized this wasn't what he wanted for
himself. He asked to return to Mooseheart and was assigned to
When Ta'merria found out Davon would be joining her family she
felt dismayed. "I was impressed with the fact that he made the
decision to come back, but I wasn't sure if he was really motivated
to make the changes in his life," she says. "While we received him
with open arms, we let him know we expected him to rise to the need
Surprisingly, Davon consented to the plan Ta'merria and the
other family teachers laid out for him. He told them he was ready
to better himself. "I was really impressed that he could walk away
from that," Ta'merria says. "I thought, if he has enough
motivation, surely I have enough compassion."
Five years later, Davon is clearly a house leader. He's learned
to respect himself and those around him. "He has found himself in
the sense that he sees a positive outlook for his life now,"
Ta'merria says. "He's such a hard worker and so dedicated. He's
actually able to lead efficiently in the same way we would. Now
he's one of the ones who will volunteer to be a mediator in a
During evening check-ins before bed, Davon will confide in
Ta'merria. "I didn't like Ta'merria much when I first came here,"
Davon admits. "Now every night I get advice from her."
Ta'merria admits that when she occasionally looks back on her
life, it's the times marked by being with her boys that she
remembers-watching them grow from "fifth graders to whiskers."
It would be easy to see this as just a job, to step back and
take a professional attitude, Ta'merria admits. But she knows the
boys need her heart and she gives that to them everyday-reminding
them that they will be her family forever.
Randy, who recently completed his senior year in high school,
only visits his birth home briefly several times a year. "I've been
here so long, I don't know what I'll do afterwards. I know that
this is a home that can take care of me while I'm here," he says.
"Once I leave here, there's no permanent home for me."
But for Ta'merria, Randy will always be her son, even after he
leaves the sprawling Mooseheart campus. "I hope to be in their
lives the rest of their lives," she says. "It doesn't stop when
they graduate. I want to walk through life together."
How to help
Mooseheart Child City & School has helped raise more than
12,000 children whose families are unable to care for them for a
variety of reasons. Mooseheart is currently home to 230 children
and teens from all over North America. The expenses to care for the
children are covered through the fundraising efforts of Moose
International. For more information or to help, visit
mooseheart.org or call (630) 906-3601.
Liz DeCarlo is senior editor at Chicago Parent and mom to
Grace, Emma and Anthony.
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