"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 [http://bit.ly/2tNk3YZ] 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?
MW: We did stay friends but our lifestyles started to change. I was going to school and playing basketball. We were in the same household. We didn’t have beefs, but he did his thing and I did mine.
DE: What happened at this point?
MW: So when I was a senior, I got a D in gym, and my mom kept saying that I wasn’t going to graduate. The reason she was doing it was because her son wasn’t going to graduate, right? So now I was in the ‘wanting-to-prove-her-wrong’ stage.
She paid for my cap and gown, even though she thought I wouldn’t be wearing them. So as graduation approached, I went to graduation practice. I got my tickets. I remember I came with my tickets and her older son's girlfriend told her she owed me an apology. She said, 'No I don't. We still got to see if he walks across the stage.' Of course I graduated, and she came to the graduation and everything. But there wasn’t any joy. She was there because she felt obligated to come. I never got that apology.
DE: So now did you move out?
MW: My whole senior year I stayed out a lot. I started spending time with other friends. I was never in the house any more. I didn't feel welcome anymore. She had kept threatening me, ‘If Maurice doesn’t listen to the rules, he can get out, he can get out, you know.’ So I just pretty much came there to sleep and go to school. On weekends, I stayed at friends’ houses.
DE: And did you see your [biological] mom at all during this time?
MW: Every once in a while, but you know, she was doing her own thing. I knew that I couldn’t go back with her. She’d been in and out of the house, she’d lost her Section 8 when I was in like third grade, getting evicted and everything, all our stuff thrown out on the porch. She had no job to pay rent. She was living with her mother.
And by senior year, my adoptive mom and I had minimum communication. I didn’t care. I would eat dinner at my friend’s house, I’d spend all day away from home, then I’d go back home to sleep wake up, walk to school.
DE: Did you have anxiety at all? How did this all make you feel?
MW: No. I didn’t care. It was what it was. During the time, I was just like, Fine. You’re mad at me, that’s your problem. I wasn’t mad. Looking back, I realize she did a lot to help me, but she didn’t do me right either. One time, I was in the house with her two sons--I’d graduated already--and she asked me, ‘What are you going to do now?’ And she said, ‘Everybody got to get out in August.’ It was here way of telling me to get out. So I said, ‘I’m trying to go to college.’
She said, ‘I don’t know how you’re going to college, I can’t afford for you to go to college.’ So I told her I’d just do it on my own. I had no idea how to do it. I thought maybe I’ll do loans, or something. I was just talking. So what really upset me was that if it were her son, she’d have been fully supportive. She’d have made sure he could do it.
So I called my grandma and told her I had to stay with her till I went to college. A friend helped me move my stuff. I told her ‘I’m just gonna leave today.’ This was June or July. I had just graduated.
DE: Had you applied to college?
MW: Yes, I had gone to a college fair earlier that year, and I applied and got accepted to some colleges, but I had no idea how I’d get there.
DE: Did you know what you wanted to study?
MW: No. I just knew it was what you were supposed to do. So when I told her I was going to leave that day, she had a look on her face like, 'Wow'. So I got my stuff, I left and I went to my granny’s house. I was still working at CVS. I started saving my money, buying stuff for college, toiletries. It was over, you know. I moved out, living with my grandma, my mom’s there too. I slept on the couch or in the bed with her. I’m there, just waiting my last days out.
DE: And you were doing all this on your own?
MW: I was doing the whole process on my own. Deadlines, applications, transcripts, letters, essays. I had ambition and vision to take control of my life and how I wanted to live my life, so I had to take initiative and depend on my independence to be successful. It was something God gave me because of my situation, I believe.
So one of my friends had applied to Grambling State University, a Historically Black College in Louisiana, and he told me to apply there too. So I applied online.
Djorgy Leroy worked at Family Focus, Evanston, at the time. He was my outreach worker, and I remember him providing my mother resources, giving rides to us, and keeping contact trying to help us. Anyway, he helped me send off the paperwork, transcripts, everything.
This is August 1. School started Aug 18. I called every day to see if I’d been accepted. Still, I have no idea how I’m getting to school, right? I had no transportation, no idea how I would pay. I was blind. I just knew I was going to college. I just thought I'd sign online and get a loan.
So now it’s August 12. My brother Nathan said he’d drive me to school. He said we’d rent a van. So now I had my ride. But I still had no idea if I’d been accepted. So I just decided, well I don’t even care, I’m gonna just go down there and see what happens. Nathan gave me $500. It was all I had. So I’m about to leave, I’m all packed up, and Nathan tells me couldn’t get the rental car. I was so pissed at him and his friends, because they rented cars all the time, and I’m like, ‘you couldn’t make it work for me?’
DE: How did Nathan have money to give you?
MW: This was when he was in the streets. So he gave me $500.
DE: Was he proud of you?
MW: Yeah, I guess he was. But Nathan was so caught up in the street life, he didn’t really understand. But like today, now, if he could turn back time, he would have made sure I had gotten there. He was like 22.
DE: Okay, so go on.
MW: So I have no ride. And I’m upset. I go to my granny’s house. It’s Aug 14. Everyone’s leaving for college. Then a friend said, ‘Why don’t you just take a flight and then a cab to the campus?’
So I’m sitting at my granny’s house. I wouldn’t go outside because I was embarrassed that I wasn’t at school. I’m thinking, what am I going to do? I decided to take a plane. I booked a one-way ticket for $260 for the next day.
Remember, I only had $500. My friend and I went to airport really late that night to pay for the ticket. My uncle got me a ride to the airport for the next day. I left at 5 a.m. I started panicking a bit. I’m about to leave. I’ve got no money. I have no idea what’s going to happen.
So we get to the airport. It was crazy. I had all this stuff because I had thought I would be driving down there. I got sheets, underwear, a bunch of toilet paper. I had one big duffle bag and it was overweight. I had toothpaste, Listerine. I was running late for the flight. And then they told me I couldn’t take such a heavy bag, or I would have to pay for it, so I had to break stuff down, leave stuff behind, throw stuff out, to get the bag under 50 pounds. I get on the plane, get to Louisiana.
DE: What was it like?
MW: It was a whole different world. It’s hot, like 110 degrees out there. I take a $50 cab to campus. My friend was there already and had a dorm room. So I got out of the cab, he took me to his room, and I put my stuff there.
And I still don’t know if I’ve been accepted. So my friend decides to take me to his counselor and set me up with some classes. So I’m like, cool. But she tries to look me up and she says, ‘Your name isn’t working. You have to go to the admission office and see what’s going on.’
DE: So you were just pretending you knew you were accepted?
MW: Yeah. I waited at admissions for an hour. Then they called my name and said, ‘Maurice, you’ve been accepted.’ I’m happy. But I’m late arriving, and I have to get all these crappy classes because all the good stuff is gone. I have no idea what I even want to study. I don’t know nothing.
I decided to study Secondary Education. So I went to that counselor and she picked my classes and put them in the system. And there was a fee, of course, and I had to go through the whole process of financial aid, which took days, and days, and more days.
In the meantime, I’m sleeping on the floor of my friend’s dorm room because there was some issue with housing where any kid who didn’t have housing had to stay at a hotel. But I wanted to be on campus.
So I slept at my friend for a couple of days. Then I stayed with another guy who had a room but no roommate. But two weeks later his roommate arrived, and I had to move my stuff out. Then I met a guy who had the key to a room that hadn’t been assigned to anyone. So I lived in there illegally almost the whole semester. That finally caught up with me and I met with housing and got my own room.
I caught a blessing because I was registered as in-state student, which gave me enough financial aid to enroll. But that caught up with me at the end of the semester when they corrected my residency status, and now I had a balance of $3,500 to pay to enroll in the next semester.
I didn’t know how I was going to pay. I’m calling around to people who’ve helped me over the years. The college won’t register me, and I’m sure they’re going to tell me to get out my dorm any day now because the registration deadline is over.
Finally, I talked to Ra Joy, and he suggested that I call the college accounting office. I had a 3.0 GPA. I talked to the Vice President. He gave me a scholarship, the school gave me money to pay off the remaining balance and I got registered for the following semester. That was all God there.
DE: Are you religious?
MW: I’ve always believed in Jesus. That’s how I got through school. I kept my faith and prayer. I mean, I’ve been down and out with no sense of direction, no hope, no idea of where I was going. But I kept my faith in God and it’s led me in the right direction. So definitely my faith has played a huge part in my life. And I don’t even go to church every Sunday. I just believe in God. I pray every night.
DE: And What made you reach out to Ra? How did you know him?
MW: I met Ra when I was in fourth grade. He always looked out for me. He got me free membership at the McGaw YMCA - Evanston , so I was able to be in the after-school program, experience Camp Echo. He provided me with a tutor, mentors, he took us on field trips to Bulls game, the Blackhawks, game rooms, Six Flags. I experienced a lot of kid activities because of Ra and I never paid a dime for anything. He was someone I knew wanted me to succeed, so I felt comfortable to reach out like I did when I was young and I needed help with something.
DE: Ok, so what happened next?
MW: After all these hurdles, things went smoothly. My friend’s mother, Beverly Stewart, paid cash for me to do two semesters and summer school so I could finish.
DE: Wait. So who's Beverly and why did she pay for you?
MW: Well, I always knew Beverly, but we started to create a relationship around my senior year of high school, because I was hanging out with her son and always at her house. I spent a lot of time there during the week, and slept a lot of weekends at her house. I lived with her when I came back to Evanston during breaks at college, and two years after college. I still have key to her house to this day. She has been a support system for me. Beverly is someone I can count on.
DE: Who else provided support for you?
MW: Another really important person through all of this was my now-fiancee Tiffanie Chancellor. She was so helpful throughout my years of college, especially in the last couple of years when things were getting tight. She would put money in my account when it was negative to bring it back up, and even put more in there. She’d order me food and have it delivered to me in college. When I came home for break while I was in college, she’d make sure I had everything I needed. She helped me a lot, a lot, a lot. I give her a lot of credit.
DE: She must have really believed in you.
MW: I think she felt there was a future for us, because I was trying to do something with my life. And it did work out for us. We own our own home. We’re engaged. She has a good job, I have a good job. We have a child together and we take care of her. I had nothing and she knew I had nothing. She wanted to see me cross the finish line.
DE: Okay, so how did the rest of college go?
MW: I played basketball my last year in college, which was fun. My last year was kind of relaxing. Just a couple of classes and internship. I got to enjoy freedom, just being a college student, not so worried about finances, not too many projects. It was a great last year. I graduated on May 16, 2010.
DE: Who came to your graduation?
MW: My dad came. We didn’t even have a relationship, but he showed up with my sister. We’d been talking periodically, not a lot. My friends came. Darius, Jeremy, Joshua, Kurt. And of course Tiffanie. They drove from Chicago. That was big. Nathan was incarcerated at this point, but I sent him an invitation anyway, even though I knew he couldn’t come. I was so grateful for them to come.
DE: What about your adoptive mom?
MW: No, she didn’t come. I didn’t even talk to her at the time.
DE: What did you do after graduation?
MW: So, I came back home and started looking for work right away. I applied from Zion to Gurnee all the way to the south suburbs for a job, but I couldn’t find any work. I had a degree, but I had no experience. It was rough the first couple of years. I even went to the streets trying to get money.
I was desperate. It’s crazy. I went back to the only thing that I knew, or that I’d seen, you know what I’m saying? I went two years without a job, even though I had a degree. I felt hopeless all the time. Like, I did all this, and now I can’t find a job, so how else do I know how to get money? How else had I seen people get money? So that’s one thing I’d seen, so like, I thought, okay, I gotta try it. I got bills. The loan people wanted their money six months after I graduated. So I was like, what do I do?
DE: How long did you do that for?
MW: Not long. I think I was too afraid of the consequences, and I never got into it too deep.
DE: What made you stop?
MW: I thought, I just can’t do that. I can’t go to jail. So I got away from it and I started working as an inclusion aid at Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center for a while. In the summer I did open-gym stuff for the City, and then I did some camp stuff. I did that for six months. Eventually I started working for the Northern Suburban Special Recreation Association as a program leader for kids with autism, and on December 12, 2012 I started my job at the City as an outreach worker.
DE: How did you get the job?
MW: Nathan was working as an outreach worker and he said I should apply. I said I would, but I wasn’t planning to. I waited till the last day that applications were due.
DE: So you didn’t want the job?
MW: I didn’t at first. I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if I’d interview well. But it was a good thing I did it. This is my fifth year with the City.
DE: So what’s next for you?
MW: I want to go back and get my masters in Athletic Administration. I want to be an athletic director. I would love to do it at the high school. I’d love to just stay here and do that if possible. I love managing this building. But my ultimate goal is to be an athletic director. I've also been inspired to do personal training for skill development in basketball. I would like to open a gym/training facility for athletes in the community and help develop them.
DE: What do you want for your daughter?
MW: One thing I want to make sure is that she has a good education. Expose her to different things. Take her out of town. Keep her busy as a young child. She’s not going to just be wandering around. She’s going to do activities. We’re gonna have a schedule. All this free time is when you get involved in stuff. There’s not gonna be too much free time for her.
I see eight-, nine-year-olds come and go as they please. I’m learning from watching other people how I want to raise my child. I pray every night that my daughter takes advantage of that and that she has respect for herself and becomes smart and that way everything will work out.
DE: Thanks so much for telling your story, Maurice.
MW: I hope I don't come off bitter, because I am absolutely not. You asked about my life, and I gave it to you in the shortest form possible. The good, bad and the ugly. I use to be embarrassed about my story, but now I embrace my life experiences. I appreciate what I experienced because that is what made me who I am today.
[Read about Kevin Brown, who oversees the Youth and Young Adult outreach team, here.