Born to Lose; Built to Win: Maurice Wilkerson's story

"I just wanted to have a mom, you know. Someone to come to my games, and things like that. I wanted to be treated like a kid. I wanted some love, I guess.

And have some structure."

Maurice Wilkerson is a mountain of a

man. He has a baby face, a shining smile, a mild manner, and a powerful story to tell about faith, courage, resilience, determination, perseverance, a few good people--and yes, luck--against the odds.

At 6’5”, Maurice is not only solid in structure; since childhood, he’s moved his own mountains and worked to help other young Evanston men do the same.

Until he left in July 2016, Maurice, 29, was an outreach worker for the City of Evanston Illinois Government Youth and Young Adult Department along with six other outreach workers, including his brother Nathan Norman, whom I interviewed last year [] and who has his own against-the-odds story.

Today, Maurice manages the Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center , booking programs, parties, events, and meetings, keeping the building functioning.

Born in Evanston, one of 10 children by several different men to a mother who struggled with poverty and substance abuse, Maurice lived in various apartments on Jackson, Simpson, Dodge, and Darrow. He left his mother’s house when he was nine years old, willed himself to college (with the help and support of several mentors), and graduated from Grambling State University with a degree in Recreation. He and his fiancee Tiffanie Chancellor (in the photo) live in Evanston with their five-year-old daughter.

I talked to Maurice last year at Curt's Cafe South when he was still an outreach worker, and again, recently, at Gibbs-Morrison. While he says he misses the outreach team and helping young people connect to resources, he's pleased to be encouraging the Evanston community to gather at Gibbs-Morrison. "It's a form of community outreach too," he says.

Here’s Maurice's story in his own words. It's long--but worth it. So as they say in radio, "stay with us."


DE: You left home when you were in fourth grade. Why did you leave?

MW: The environment wasn’t good. My mom had drug issues. I wasn’t forced to go to school, but I liked to go. I needed the support and guidance and structure. I was hanging with my friend, sleeping over at his house a lot. I ended up just staying there. For two years. I was able be a kid in his house.

At my home, I was babysitting my two younger sisters, one was in Kindergarten and one was a toddler, not knowing if we were going to eat every night, not being guaranteed a meal every night. I just wasn’t a fourth grader. So when I left, it was kind of to get away from that situation. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just wanted to be a kid.

DE: So you felt you had no structure at home?

MW: No structure at all. There were times that celery and peanut butter was dinner. Plenty of times when I opened the refrigerator and nothing was in there. It’s hard to remember everything from back then, but I know for a fact, it was a struggle. My mom didn’t work. She was on Public Aid. Section 8 housing, and all that. It was rough.

DE: What was your responsibility in your house?

MW: I didn’t have no responsibility. I was a kid who wanted to go to school. I was a kid that wanted my mom to say, you know, you have to be in the house by 7 p.m. I just wanted that. It was something in me. I just wanted to have a mom, you know. Someone to come to my games, and things like that. I wanted to be treated like a kid. I wanted some love, I guess. And have some structure.

DE: So you went and lived with a friend till fifth grade …

MW: My friend had a structured home. We had to be home at a certain time. We had dinner. We had clean clothes, stuff to shower with. We didn’t always have that at my own house. We couldn’t do bad things in school without consequences. Living at home, there were no consequences.

DE: What happened in fifth grade?

MW: I moved back to my mother’s home the summer after fifth grade because my friend’s mother’s boyfriend moved in, and he didn’t want me there. He was strict and controlling because I wasn’t her real son. I was 10. Then, going into sixth grade, I moved in with another friend. Again, I was just spending a lot of time there, nights there. And I just ended up staying.

DE: And did the parents of these other kids just say, hey, come live with us?

MW: Well, I think the kids asked their moms. I was just a good kid. I didn’t cause any problems so, yeah, they just accepted me living with them. They knew my family and the situation. So after that summer, I ended up becoming best friends with a guy, and I started spending a lot of time at his house. His mom knew my situation and everything. I ended up living with them after a while in sixth grade when I was going to Haven Middle School. And she ended up adopting me.

DE: How did that come about?

MW: So DCFS was involved in my life from second grade through the end of eighth grade, which is when I got adopted. And now, in sixth grade, I was about to get taken by DCFS. They knew I was living with this family.

My mom kept having kids, and my sisters were taken from home by DCFS. All my mom’s kids were taken from her at birth, and they were going to come and get me because I was in the school system. Nathan was in juvy at the time, and my other brother, who is a year older than me, was living with one of his friends.

So anyway, DCFS would come to school and check on kids. They asked questions like, ‘Did you eat last night?’ ‘What did you eat?’ ‘How’s your household?’ They’d ask lots of questions to find out if you were in a safe environment. And if not, they’d take you from your family.

DE: So were you honest? Were you scared?

MW: I lied. I was scared. I knew my little sister in Kindergarten was telling a different story. It was crazy. I’d be in the principal’s office and there’d be two people asking me all these questions. I can’t even remember how it felt. I tried to protect my mom.

DE: How aware were you that your mom had problems?

MW: I knew. I had friends, and I’d been to their houses a lot. I got a piece of what family was supposed to look like. Plus my friends, they might have had single moms, but they had structure. I was always thinking, ‘why can’t my mom be a regular person?’

Anyway, I was laying in bed one night at my friend’s house and DCFS came to take me. They said, ‘come on we have to go now.’ I said, ‘No, I don’t want to leave.’ I was crying on the top bunk. My friend’s mom was in the hallway. Finally the DCFS caseworker said, ‘If you get a form signed by your mom to say that your friend’s mother can have parental guardianship over you till we figure this out, you can stay here.’

Luckily, my mom was across the street at one of her friend’s houses where she used to hang out. So I went over with the letter and my mom signed it. Right then and there. It was crazy. That’s how my friend’s mom got guardianship. So now I lived with them, but DCFS still kept checking in, so my friend’s mom decided to get her adoption license so that she could adopt me legally. And my freshman year I was legally adopted and got my last name changed.

DE: Wow she sounds like quite a person ...

MW: Well, at the start it was amazing. I was young and I was just looking for love and support. Nothing else really mattered to me. Just as long as I had a mom. I wanted someone to show me love. I loved her. Did she love me? Yes, but over time, probably not as much as she loved her own kids. Of course, I can understand why.

As I get older I think about how stuff played out. When she first adopted me, it was genuine love. She wanted to help me out. But I got my first job doing odd jobs, at 14, then I worked at Walgreens, and then at CVS, and I became independent very early. Of course, the reason I was independent was because of my past lifestyle. I didn’t ask for much.

I was playing basketball. I wasn’t the best student, but I was passing my classes. I had my fair share of curiosity, like any teenager, but for the most part, I stayed out of trouble. But her son struggled more than me, and I think it kind of got to her. I think she felt a little envious of me because I kept on the right path, and she minimized her support for me because her son was falling off the track. See what I’m saying?

So after my sophomore year, the vibe changed. She was distant from me, it was all down talk, down to me, down to me, trying to break me. She went from loving me to trying to break me, but I wouldn’t break. I felt like she wanted me to be a failure. I felt like I was born to lose, but built to win.

DE: How come you didn’t leave?

MW: I didn’t leave because I had nowhere to go. I was dealing with it, just taking the good with the bad. By junior year, I felt like I was being treated like a stepchild, and senior year it became completely sour. I was 18, and we didn’t have that mother-son relationship any more. She was distant. She wasn’t showing me much love.

It started with little stuff. Expectations were just different with me and her son. Even chores. I had the majority of the chores. And she’d tell me ‘you don’t even do much.’ I’d mop the stairs, and the downstairs, and the kitchen and do the bathroom. He’d vacuum the living room and do things half-assed. But I was always accused of not doing enough. By my junior year, it was like I couldn’t do anything right, and he couldn’t do any wrong.

DE: So you had been best friends. Did your friendship suffer?