In October 2009, 19-year-old Javay Macelus left school in Kentucky, where he'd begun turning his life around, and flew to Tampa for his mother's funeral.
He told friends in Kentucky he'd be back in a week.
The day after his mother, Judy, died of a heart attack, family members gathered in a tidy brick house in east Tampa and sat in a living room filled with family portraits spanning decades.
They had gathered to mourn and to plan a funeral. But they had another pressing concern: The seven school-aged children Judy Macelus cared for, her grandchildren, needed a new home.
Everyone — two generations of aunts and uncles and cousins — was willing to care for one or two children, but seven (and an eighth on the way) were just too many for one person or family to absorb.
On his flight to Tampa, as Javay had thought about what would happen to the children he had grown up with, he hadn't imagined that they would be split up. And he definitely wasn't ready when his aunts and uncles looked at him and someone suggested he might be the answer.
Before that moment, Javay had every intention of going back to Kentucky to finish the vocational training program that had set him straight. He could even see college in his future.
But then Javay thought about what happened when his sister — the kids' mother — had died in 2000. They were going to be split up until his mother had insisted the kids stay together, and the job became hers.
Javay was certain his mother would have wanted him to step forward.
"They should stay together," he said. "Let me try."
No one was sure whether a judge would grant custody to someone so young, but most agreed this was the best solution. Javay went home to tell his nieces and nephews, ages 9 to 16, that he would take care of them.
The question no one asked was this: If Javay took care of them, what would happen to him?
• • •
Javay Macelus was born in Tampa to a woman with a quick smile and a big heart. Judy Macelus married once, bore three children and worked at a dry cleaner. When her daughter died of cancer at 22, Judy welcomed all seven grandchildren into her home.
Her youngest son, Javay, was 10 at the time. He became his mother's helper. The children, ranging in age from 3 months to 7 years, filled their home with laughter, noise and laundry.
For a while things were good.
And then Javay began to change. He became aggressive and confrontational. Almost overnight, he shot up to 6 feet, and soon towered over everyone at school. He learned to talk tough and cop an attitude. He grew to 6 feet 5. He got into fights and was expelled from school.
He tried to straighten up, but attending different schools didn't help. It seemed as though everyone around him acted just like he did.
At the North Tampa Alternative School, staff member Gloria Pittman would think about Javay long after he stopped coming to school. She had seen glimpses of his compassion and maturity. Such potential, she would think. If only he knew what he was capable of.
For a while he did nothing. Then a cousin, who had completed Job Corps, suggested he give the federally funded training program a try. He flew to Kentucky for the culinary arts program, which sounded interesting.
At first he was the same Javay he had been at home. He didn't want to get up in the morning. He was disruptive and created drama.
But slowly he began to change. The environment was unlike any he had lived in before, physically and socially. He loved the mountains and the snow. And the people around him were different. They weren't aggressive or confrontational. He began to see his previous behavior as ridiculous. He felt a sense of freedom.
"No one knows me here," he thought. "I can be who I want."
Javay had strong skills in the kitchen and his teachers were encouraging. He learned to cook new dishes and use fresh herbs like rosemary and thyme. He woke early. He made new friends.
Months went by. He began talking about attending Berea College, a small liberal arts school he'd discovered. He took their college tour twice. Maybe he'd become a teacher.
Eight months into his Job Corps program, Javay's sister called to say his mother had died.
• • •
It was a relief to the kids to have Uncle Javay take charge.
But it wasn't easy. Everyone was grieving. And Desiree, who was 15, was pregnant, and her due date was approaching — right on top of the Christmas holidays.
Javay leaned on the systems his mother had put in place. The family stayed in the government-subsidized apartment his mother had rented at the North Boulevard Homes, where the kids could walk to school. He knew when and where to pay the bills, where she shopped, and what the kids liked to eat. Social Security, relative caregiver funds and food stamps were stretched to cover expenses.
The Family Enrichment Center, a local, faith-based nonprofit, put Javay in touch with mentors and resources. They helped with Christmas presents. Bay Area Legal helped him file paperwork to gain custody of the kids. A court date was set.
Javay learned to shop for a house of eight. For the first time in his life, he purchased feminine hygiene products and restaurant-sized bags of flour and sugar. He purchased the largest bags of pasta he could find and 100 pounds of pork chops, chicken, steaks and ground beef.
He learned his money went further if he shopped in bulk and that Sam's Club accepted food stamps. His first time there, he wandered the aisles in awe.
"My mom didn't know about buying in bulk," he said. "Everything is so big and compact. I didn't even know they sold stuff like this."
Without a car, it was difficult to get to places like Sam's Club or Save-A-Lot. An aunt agreed to take him shopping once a month. He learned to plan well.
Thanksgiving came and went, then Christmas. A baby girl was born on Dec. 29 by caesarean section.
Javay added baby formula and diapers to the shopping list.
• • •
One morning in February, while the kids were at school, Javay shopped for clothes to wear to court. He had black slacks but needed shoes and a shirt.
His cousin took him shopping. At the Burlington Coat Factory they studied the shirts, eliminating colors that seemed wrong for a 19-year-old petitioning a judge for custody of seven kids.
Red? "Too much," Javay said. Black? "Too shady." They settled on purple.
The store had one pair of black shoes, size 15. Javay bought them.
A few days later, Javay's cousin drove him to court. On the way, she pretended to be the judge.
"What makes you think you're good enough to take care of these kids at your young age?" she asked. "What is your educational level? How can you provide for these kids?"
Javay answered carefully. He was worried he might not get custody and wanted to be prepared for anything.
At the courthouse in downtown Tampa, Javay took the elevator up three floors and waited outside the courtroom. His shoes shone. His eyes gleamed. Friends and family kept calling to see what was happening. He spoke on his cell phone like an executive away from the office.
For a moment he paused and thought of his mother. She would be proud of him today.
A social worker from the Family Enrichment Center, Chauncey Ellis, came to offer support.
"I've never seen anyone like him," Ellis said. For the last few months, she had watched him successfully navigate his role as caretaker. She felt he was ready.
Judge Tracy Sheehan examined his file closely. A psychologist's report validated the social worker's findings.
"Two 9-year-olds, you up for that?" Sheehan asked. "You have a heck of a houseful. That's a triple-full-time job."
Nervous, Javay could only answer: "Yes."
Five months after his mother died, custody of all seven children was granted to Javay.
• • •
In the months that followed, Javay had his first parent conference. He transferred the electricity from his mother's name to his. He opened his first checking account. He taught everyone how to do laundry and follow a schedule of chores.
The chore list worked. And then it stopped working. Javay gathered everyone together for a serious talk about responsibility. Soon the chores were getting done again.
Social worker Ellis stopped by for a visit. She sat at the dining table in Javay's apartment. The kitchen was clean, the floor still damp in places from a recent mopping.
Desiree, the young mom, walked in and handed 6-month-old Geor'terriah to Javay while she grabbed a snack. For a moment, Geor'terriah studied Javay's face intently, and then rested her head on his arm.
Ellis took a file out of her bag and worked her way through a checklist.
She asked about depression or unusual events occurring. None had.
"Are you managing your bills?" she asked.
"As soon as I get the money, the bills get paid," Javay said.
"What do you do to promote peace and reduce stress?" she asked.
"The other day we had a kickball game," he said. "We know mostly everybody. We knocked on doors. Everyone came outside. We used the whole parking lot to play."
"Do you still have strong support from your family?" she asked.
"Yes. That's why they're fixing to leave for part of the summer," he said, explaining that the youngest children would spend six weeks with his sister to give him a break.
"How is your adult ed program?" Ellis asked.
"I need to find a date to take the GED," Javay said.
They discussed the possibility of Javay looking for work.
"You have enough income right now," she said. "Focus on your education. You'll always have that."
A safety net of nonprofit and governmental support had helped Javay to keep the kids together. Now Ellis was concerned about him.
• • •
His mother didn't graduate from high school, nor did his father. No one in Javay's immediate circle has applied for financial aid or walked across a stage to collect a bachelor's degree.
Javay wasn't entirely sure how to go about those things, either, but once planted, the flicker of college stayed alive in his mind.
When school started in the fall, everyone advanced to the next grade. Desiree began a training program, with day care included. Javay took Ellis' advice and began studying for the GED.
One late afternoon, he made homemade macaroni and cheese for dinner.
"It's my signature dish," he said. He poured an oversized bag of Sam's Club macaroni noodles into a large pot of hot water.
While he whisked butter and flour to make a roux, he talked about his eighth-grade nephew.
Javay knew firsthand how hard it could be to get through middle and high school without falling in with the wrong crowd.
"I let him know how I was and tell him why that's not the right way," he said. "I definitely don't want him to do what I did."
Javay added a bit of heavy whipping cream, then milk, and continued whisking.
"Here's where you drop the cheese in," he said, tossing a handful of shredded cheddar into the pot.
Once done, he mixed the noodles and cheese in a restaurant-sized pan and melted more cheese on top.
A few days later, Javay took the GED. He passed everything except science. The longer he'd been out of school, the more difficult it became to remember the details of atomic structure and energy transformation.
• • •
When the anniversary of his mother's death came and went, Javay noted how much everyone had grown up.
And even though he didn't finish the Job Corps program, he credits it with helping him become who he is today.
"To me it felt like I was a hood personality," Javay said. "I went to a civilized area and got a proper education. I learned what I needed to know."
But it was a sacrifice to come back and take over where his mother left off.
"I basically gave up everything," he said, thinking back to his decision.
Javay's plans have changed, but going to college is not his only goal now.
"I want to see everyone grown up," he said. "Seeing them grow up and me being able to go to college are the main two objectives."
Maybe he'll become an elementary school teacher, and won't need help anymore from state or nonprofit agencies.
"In 10 years, I hope I'll be teaching and living in my own house," he said.
His family will visit every now and then, but he won't have to worry about them anymore, he said.
That's his hope for the future. But for now, the kids are his priority.
On Dec. 29, Geor'terriah turned 1.
Forty friends and family turned out to celebrate, and a tall, proud great-uncle stood out in the crowd.
He had helped plan the party, right down to a pink and white Minnie Mouse cake.
He had worried about whether it would all turn out okay, and in the end it did. It was better than okay.
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.