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 bike.
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 outbursts.
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 Ta’merria.”
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 challenging.
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 out.
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 continued.
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 Michigan house.
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 to change.”
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 conflict.”
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.