“If Mother Nature had a form, she would be my mother, who definitely has been a mother to all,” said Shenita James Berrian, 36, a talented singer who is also the music teacher at Robles Elementary, one of Tampa’s lowest income schools.
Bonnie James, 67, is the president and CEO of Kingdom Kids, a children’s advocacy organization. She has more than 30 years of work experience in social services, counseling and fundraising. Her daughter is an award-winning educator and also a mezzo-soprano who has performed as a soloist with the Master Chorale and Opera Tampa, among many others.
Through the years, they have brought their separate talents together for the cause of children in need.
The James family has personally taken care of more than 100 children in foster care since Bonnie and her late husband, Michael, founded Kingdom Kids of Tampa Bay in 2004 as a licensed foster care program. They had great success getting children up to grade level performance, a problem that frequently plagues at-risk children.
Then they realized they could help even more children in area-wide educational programs.
So for the past decade, Kingdom Kids has partnered with Feeding America to help families in poverty, delivering more than 1 million pounds of food since 2010. They also worked with some of Hillsborough County’s most impoverished schools, such as Sulphur Springs Elementary, with educational programs and school improvement teams.
For kids at Robles Elementary northeast of Tampa, where 97 percent of students qualify for free or discounted lunches, breakfast by James was one of the highlights of the Saturday Academy. That’s a state-funded program to boost students who are struggling with reading, writing and math.
Berrian has been the music teacher at Robles since 2007 and when they started the Saturday Academy in 2012, James brought the kids waffles, sausage patties, scrambled eggs, juice and milk. She paid for the food with donations from Kingdom Kids.
Her reward, she said, was watching the children eat well.
The Jameses raised three daughters of their own in addition to dozens of foster kids in their care at any time. And James says one of them, Telia Thomas, 29, is really more like their fourth daughter at this point, having raised her since she was 5.
It was at the University of South Florida that Berrian, who was premed at the time, caught the attention of a music professor. He suggested she pursue choral and classical singing. That led her to switch to teaching.
“Through performance you just see a different child," Berrian said. “People ask me: ‘How did you get that kid on stage? He’s such a terror in the classroom.' And I say it’s the magic of music.”
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Her mother agrees, "and I’m so glad we have Shenita to bring that out in them.”
James admits having a hard time in quarantine because she’s usually all over the place setting up services and seeing that food gets delivered. But her daughter, who lives with her mother in Ruskin along with her own four children, ages 1 through 14, put her foot down until everything is cleared up.
As Mother’s Day arrives, James feels for the many children who don’t have a mother, or the stepmothers who are trying to do their best and getting rejected. “And my heart really breaks for the foster mothers who do your best but the kids really don’t realize it’s for their own good and shut you out.”
“There is no perfect mother," James said. "I think you just have to do your best and pray. And then it takes years before a mother’s value is realized.”
Her daughter agreed. “I always tell my kids don’t judge, people are doing the best they can with what they have," she said. “But I feel fortunate that she is such a beautiful person. I know what love means. I have seen that personified in my parents.”