By WILL ATWATER
For The News-Gazette
The sound of explosives and automatic machine gun fire spilling from the TV doesn't seem to bother a snoring 2-year-old D'aizit, who sleeps at one end of the couch.
But at the other end, Nicole Martin, a staff member of the Champaign County Urban and Regional Planning office's No Limits Program, seems distracted as she attempts to get through to First Call for Help, a family-service agency that acts as an information referral program. Martin keeps pressing the redial button in hopes of reaching someone who can help Yolanda Davis get the financial assistance she needs to pay this month's rent.
Eventually Martin gives up. "It doesn't look like it's going to happen today."
On the floor nearby sits Davis, D'aizit's mother, who is using a borrowed cell phone to call AmerenIP about an extinguished pilot light in the rental house where she lives.
Late November has brought cold weather, but her house in southwest Champaign is without heat. The furnace has not worked since last winter, and Davis is concerned that her three children will suffer as it gets colder.
"I would like someone to come out and check the system because I have little kids and don't think it's safe for me to try to light the pilot again," she tells the Ameren representative on the other end of the call.
For a moment it seems like the tension mounting on the screen will spill over into her conversation. She takes a deep breath, then continues, "I need someone to come out and check the pilot light for me because the heat is not coming on."
Eventually Davis is told that the company will send someone over later to check the system. But there is one complication: Davis does not have a phone number to give Ameren so the work order can be processed. A few awkward seconds pass before Martin offers to be the contact person and gives her number to the Ameren representative.
Davis is no stranger to complications; with an estimated monthly income that ranges from $600 to $800, she is among the more than 32,000 Champaign County residents who live at or below the poverty line, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau in November 2009.
The report also states that poverty rates for Champaign County in 2008 rose to 18.7 percent, up from the 2007 rate of 18.2 percent.
The complications in Davis' life escalated last fall. She lost her Link Card benefits, through which the federal government provides cash assistance for food and other necessities; she was fired from her 30-hour-per-week, minimum-wage ($8 per hour) job at Taco Bell; and she lost her phone service.
During the same period, the 34-year-old mother of five, whose three youngest children live with her, was paid an unexpected visit by her oldest son, Anthony, 18, who had been living with his father and intended to now live with her.
Anthony's father made the decision to send him to Davis without her knowledge, she said, and the arrangement lasted only a few weeks before Anthony returned to Chicago. Though she was happy to have her son, his moving into the household required adjustments, just as his leaving did.
Being out of work increased Davis' financial stress. But even when she worked, her life was complicated as she constantly juggled her responsibilities as a parent with her responsibilities as an employee. In order to work the late-night shift she was assigned, Davis had to find child care and transportation.
"I had to arrange with my children's school for them to take a school bus to my baby sitter's house after school. I would take the baby to her house before I went to work. I would call the shuttle service and have them pick me up and carry me to the sitter's house and collect my children, and have the shuttle bring us home," she said.
Some nights Davis would have to wake her sleeping children and take them home far past their bedtimes.
Davis is also an on-call custodian for the Champaign school district, for which she is paid more than $11 per hour when she works.
While the custodian job pays well, Davis never knows in advance what her schedule will be. When she is called in, she usually works the 3-to-11 p.m. shift. This requires Davis to contact her sitter to see if she's available, and she must make sure that her two school-age children are able to get from school to the sitter's house.
Davis then has to either walk or take the bus to the sitter's house to drop off her 2-year-old. Once her shift is over, she has to find transportation to and from the sitter's house.
If things go well, she said, she will return home with her children around midnight.
The situation sounds overwhelming, yet Davis describes her life with an easy smile and infectious laugh. The complications in her life date back to her childhood and include such obstacles as teen pregnancy, lack of parental support and limited education.
Despite it all, though, Davis remains optimistic. She believes she is working toward a better future.
"She would never buy me new clothes"
Born on Dec. 16, 1975, Davis lived with her mother and two sisters on Chicago's south side. As a young girl, she remembers frequent altercations with her mother that grew worse as she grew older. Davis finally decided to leave home as a young teenager.
"I emancipated myself when I was 14 from my mom's care," she said. "She used to beat me for no apparent reason. I would never leave my kids with her if she was alive. I loved her because that was my mom. But me calling her mom, I could never do that. I would call her by her name or her nickname. That was not my mother. That couldn't have been the woman that put me on this Earth."
Davis feels a special connection to children who suffer abuse because of her childhood experiences.
"I swear for the kids that are out there if I could do anything about it, I would because I've been there. I understand. When you been accused of something or just getting the crap beat out of you for no apparent reason, that's not love."
Davis is determined to shield her children from the type of abuse she suffered as a child.
"I tell my kids I may discipline you, I may scream at you, but I will never beat you. That is so cruel and your kids have to grow up with that telling your kids that they will never amount to anything and they will grow up believing that."
Davis said she struggles from time to time with her confidence because she constantly received negative criticism and put-downs from her mother, who died in 2001.
"She would never buy me new clothes," Davis said of her mother. "My older sisters got to wear new clothes but not me. I had to wear hand-me-downs."
When relatives bought Davis clothes, her mother would give them to her sisters to wear, she said. Convinced that things would not change, she moved out.
Davis went to live with an uncle in Evanston, and for several months she hid her whereabouts from her mother. She was not able to enroll in school because her mother refused to sign to have her records released. While other kids were at school, Davis said she read books and magazines to occupy her time.
Davis befriended Wanda Terry, a girl close to her own age, who lived in the same apartment complex. Soon she began spending a lot of time in Terry's apartment where she felt welcomed.
Wanda's mother, Davis said, "used to do my hair, feed me and put clothes on my back. She treated me like I was her own daughter."
"I became rebellious"
While living in Evanston, Davis met Anthony Foster at Fleetwood Jordan Park, near where they both lived. They spent time talking and playing basketball at the park and became close, she said.
Soon Davis was pregnant with her first child. She was put in touch with a person who gave refuge to teenage mothers and was invited to live in the woman's home with her newborn, she said.
Davis did what seemed right to her, but her decision to have the baby had an impact on her struggles today.
Teen mothers are more likely to drop out of high school than girls who delay childbearing: only 40 percent of teenagers who have children before the age of 18 graduate from high school, according to a national study. And roughly 25 percent of teen mothers under the age of 18 have a second child within two years of the birth of the first child, according to the same national study.
The struggles for teen mothers and their children often don't end after childbirth but extend far into the future. About 64 percent of children born to an unmarried parent who did not finish high school live in poverty, according to federal studies.
"One of the biggest obstacles for teen parents is just being able to make ends meet and to care for their child as well as for themselves which is a huge stressor," said Reagen Bradbury, a Teen Parent Services case manager for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.
In 1991, after living in the home for two months, Davis ran into her great uncle, James Minnifield. After learning of her situation, Minnifield invited Davis to live with him and his wife Martha in their Country Club Hills home south of Chicago, she said.
When Davis moved in with the Minnifields, her mother, Helen, finally signed to have Davis' school records released and she attended Hillcrest High School after a two-year absence from classes. A 17-year-old ninth-grader, Davis began hanging around "the wrong crowd," she said. "I became rebellious."
At home, the Minnifields doted on Davis and her son, Anthony.
"Martha was constantly buying us new things. I had so many clothes that I needed more than one closet to fit them in," she said.
While her aunt furnished Davis and her son with clothing and home-cooked meals, her uncle encouraged her to work hard in school and to set her sights on a college degree, she said. Davis had other plans.
Even though Davis moved from Evanston to Country Club Hills, she stayed in contact with her boyfriend, Anthony.
"Sometimes on the weekends, he would borrow a car to come see me," she said.
Davis became pregnant with her second child while in the 10th grade and living with the Minnifields. Fearful of how they would react, she tried to conceal her pregnancy. Davis started wearing sweat suits and other baggy clothing in hopes no one would notice.
"One day I was sitting on my bed when Martha walked in and asked me if I was gaining weight," she said.
When Mrs. Minnifield left the room, Davis broke down and began to cry. She knew she couldn't continue to hide the truth from the Minnifields, she said.
The Minnifields were disappointed but determined to continue to support Davis, and they encouraged her to stay in school. But Davis decided to quit school and find an apartment with Foster.
"My uncle is disappointed with where I am in my life," she said.
James Minnifield declined to be interviewed for this story.
Davis gave birth to her second child on Sept. 11, 1993. She and Foster lived together in Albany, a small town two-and-a-half hours west of Chicago, and raised their two children.
"Anthony worked at UPS, and I was a stay-at-home mom," she said.
After two years the couple went their separate ways. Eventually, the children went to live with their father.
"You never know who is watching you"
As a high school dropout with no job skills, Davis moved in with her paternal grandmother, who has since died. She struggled to earn money.
Teen mothers are more likely to seek financial support from family or from public assistance, and 75 percent of unmarried teen mothers go on welfare within five years of the birth of their first child, according to a March of Dimes study.
Davis took a different approach: She decided to sell cocaine and marijuana, which kept her away from home for several days at a time.
"Sometimes it would be so late by the time I finished selling that I would just sleep at the house where I was dealing," she said.
Davis was careful not to become flashy with the money she made because she didn't want to tip anyone off to the fact that she was a drug dealer.
"You never know who is watching you," she said. "It could be the cops or just some jealous people from the neighborhood who want what you got."
In 1996, Davis said, she was a passenger in a car that contained drugs. The car was pulled over by police, and ultimately she was charged with possession of an illegal substance with the intent to distribute.
After receiving probation, Davis decided to go legitimate. She went to work for a company that sold an all-purpose domestic cleaner. The job allowed her to see other parts of the country and to see how other people lived. She traveled to California, Utah, Nevada and other Western states, she said.
"Sometimes when I'd be in these nice places, I would wish that I had my kids with me so that they could see the things I was seeing," she said.
In late May 1996, she was in Utah and requested to return home for her son's birthday, on June 2, but she was unable to get back until June 14. At the time she and Anthony were not communicating well and she did not have his current address, she said, and never saw her son.
Instead of returning to work with the round-trip bus ticket bought by her employer, Davis decided to stay in the Evanston area to be near her children, she said.
"We realize ... we can't live together"
Around 1998, Davis developed a relationship with Izear Davis, whom she married and had two children with. But complications continued for her.
In 2001, after she failed a drug test, which resulted in a parole violation and almost being sent to prison for five to 30 years, the couple decided to move to Champaign, Izear Davis said. Yolanda's two older children stayed with their father in Chicago. While in Champaign, she would occasionally talk on the phone with her children.
Izear Davis now lives in Houston. He remembers Yolanda's struggles with her mother when they became a couple.
"I recall times when (Yolanda's) mother was yelling and throwing things at her and (Yolanda) was throwing things back ... to the point where it seemed like it was no love there at all," he said.
Over the next several years the couple struggled to hold their family together as they faced marital and financial problems. During this period, the couple had multiple rental evictions and had several court claims filed against them by rental agencies for nonpayment.
"When (we) moved to Champaign, I worked and (we) lived in a hotel and paid rent every two weeks," Davis said. "To help make ends meet, Yolanda reached out to local agencies for assistance."
But the financial strain and other difficulties proved to be too much for the couple to handle, so they decided to separate. However, they have maintained a close relationship.
"We still communicate well," Davis said. "Anything that she needs ... I'm right there. It's like we're still married but we realize, as grownups, that we can't live together. It's in our best interests to remain friends ... for our kids because no matter what, they still need us."
Yolanda Davis was again on her own with two kids to care for.
In 2007, she met a man who fathered her youngest child. The relationship quickly took a turn for the worse after the baby was born. Confronted with domestic violence, Davis sought help from a women's shelter.
The Department of Children and Family Services got involved to make sure Davis' children were all right, she said. A DCFS caseworker referred her to the No Limits program, which encourages adults to develop a plan to improve their lives.
The turning point for Davis came when she met Rebecca Woodard, the No Limits program director. Woodard pushed Davis to verbalize her goals, she said.
Woodard "was like, 'Yolanda, what do you want for yourself?' I said, 'OK, this is what I want. I want to have my own business; I want my kids to be taken care of when I leave this world; not for them to rely on no one else. When I die, it's up to them to do the right thing. I want a home where I can take care of the homeless people. ... I want to be in a (career) where I'm ... helping someone else and for them to understand what I've been through. ... A lot of people can say (that they) understand but they really don't because (they) haven't fit in my shoes; they haven't been through the things I've been through."
"I have my driver's license"
Of her hardships, worrying about her children's welfare is the toughest.
"Being on the street, being homeless, having to ask someone, 'Could you feed my kids?' Not knowing what's going to happen tomorrow, or (what) the next day after that is going to bring."
Working with Woodard has given Davis confidence that she can reach her goals. One of the first was to get her driver's license.
"I didn't think that I could get my driver's license – I have my driver's license."
After failing the test the first time, Davis would not accept defeat.
"I took the test (again) and scored a 97," she said. She does not own a car, however, and must rely on public transportation.
With Woodard's encouragement, Davis was able to overcome the lack of self-esteem and confidence that has plagued her since childhood.
"I have doubt about myself because when you grow up and a person keeps telling you (that) you're not going to be anything ... that makes you believe that."
Sometimes when things get tough, she asks herself: "Am I more than what I am right now? Am I always going to work these minimum-wage jobs?" To this second question, she has been able to respond with an emphatic "no."
"Maintain those things we need to survive"
Davis' resolve is being tested. She did not receive her monthly Illinois Link Card benefits last October. The Link program provides needy families with cash and food stamp benefits electronically, which are accessed via the card, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services Web site.
Davis said a spokesman for the Link program told her that her benefits had been discontinued because she had failed to respond to a notice in writing that required her to schedule an appointment with an administrator to review her program eligibility.
Davis said she believes the letter was misplaced by one of her kids. As a result, she lost her monthly government benefits, which caused her to exhaust her limited cash reserve on food. With the loss of her Link benefits and her job at Taco Bell, Davis soon lost her phone service and fell behind on her light and water bills.
Those events took a toll on Davis, who had decided not to seek child support from the fathers of her young children.
"I can't lose no sleep over it. I'm not about to keep calling Child Support (Services), saying, 'Well, I didn't receive my child support this month.' That's just a waste of time."
Davis is relying on part-time jobs and public aid to support her family.
"I still have to do what I have to do because it's not cool to have water and lights turned off when you have kids. These are necessities. I'm a single mom, so I have to maintain those things we need to survive."
Surviving for Davis has meant fighting back tears, on occasion, when the sight of an empty refrigerator reminds her that a misplaced letter resulted in the loss of her Link benefits.
"You speak to the automated service and it tells you to put in your PIN number and then it will tell you that your food-stamp balance is zero dollars and your cash benefits are zero dollars."
Davis believes the way to improve life for her and for her kids is to advance her education.
"My goal and focus is to finish school. I can't let nothing jeopardize that."
But she knows balancing her responsibilities and goals will not be easy.
"I have to face keeping my bills paid, going to school, making sure my kids (are) well taken care of ... that the lights don't go off, that (my kids) have food every day ... give (my kids) the time that they need. Regardless if I'm tired or not, I still have to give them their time."
Woodard acknowledged the difficulties faced by low-income individuals returning to school.
"When somebody has been out of school for so long, when they lack confidence because they have been raised by someone who has not instilled confidence in them, plus when they have 10,000 other responsibilities on their hands, it's hard for them to get there," Woodard said.
To fulfill her dream of graduating from high school, Davis enrolled in the Urbana Adult Education's Adult Level Program last fall. The program provides an opportunity to earn a high school diploma from Urbana High School.
Unlike the General Equivalency Diploma (GED) program, the classes are structured to allow adult participants time to complete assignments at their own pace.
"Never really in her life"
Izear Davis believes the issues Yolanda Davis had with her late mother are still not resolved.
"The death of her mother plays a big part in (Yolanda's) life ... as far as how she (acts) towards the kids because she does not want to treat (them) the way she was treated," he said. Davis confirmed that Yolanda has limited contact with her siblings who live in Chicago.
"It's like they'd be OK for a minute and then (would) go three or four years without speaking to each other. It was the same pattern with her mom."
Davis does speak with her father, who lives in Chicago, when he calls – usually from another family member's house.
"(Her) dad was never really in her life as far as I know," Izear Davis said.
Woodard also sees the challenges faced by Davis because of her lack of family support.
"I think that is a huge part of her story that she doesn't really have any family and I think that's why she feels so connected with me. It's almost like (the No Limits) program has taken the role of her parent. I think that's what we do with a lot of clients – it's not really intentionally and we definitely have to have our boundaries. ... I almost do the same things with my clients as I do with my daughter when I'm trying to get her to do her homework. ... It's like I'm almost trying to help them plan out their lives because that was what was lacking," Woodard said.
"I want my cap and gown"
In December, Davis' public aid benefits were reinstated and though she doesn't have a job currently, she is still in the No Limits program and continues to meet with Woodard on a regular basis. An AmerenIP representative was able to ignite the pilot light, and Davis and her family have heat.
Since Jan. 10, Davis has been attending adult education classes on a weekly basis and she has also enrolled in Even Start, an educational program for mothers and their children. Four days per week the program provides door-to-door transportation for Davis and her 2-year-old son. While she is taking classes, her son is in a preschool class in Champaign. As a part of the Even Start program, Davis and other mothers interact with their kids at certain times during the week in the preschool setting, where they read to and focus on the children in order to promote bonding between parent and child.
And, at age 35, she remains committed to completing her high school course work and to participating in graduation ceremonies as a member of the Urbana High School Class of 2010.
"A lot of people (said), 'Why don't you go to Parkland to get your GED?' I don't want to take the easy way. I want my cap and gown – the things I should have had in high school. I want to show my kids that everything you want in life, you have to work hard at it."
About CU-Citizen Access
This report is part of a joint project of The News-Gazette and the University of Illinois Department of Journalism, in an ongoing examination of poverty and its related issues in Champaign County.
The project is funded by the Marajen Stevick Foundation, a News-Gazette foundation; a matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a journalism foundation based in Miami; and contributions from the UI.
The project also has launched a Web site for this and other material, including user-generated content, at www.cu-citizenaccess.org.