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Holiday Hopes: This St. Petersburg family has the drive, just not a car

ST. PETERSBURG — Zeneta Jackson turns on the bedroom light. Willie Hairston squints in protest. He feels like he just closed his eyes. "It's time to get up," she says.

Ten years and five kids together have cemented certain roles in their relationship.

She is the Communicator. With Zeneta, who is 37, words do not go unsaid.

Willie, who is 29, is the Understanding Man. He is patient. He listens. He works hard, stays calm.

Two thin sheets of drywall away, the kids are fighting. Zeneta is overwhelmed with inside-out jackets, school lunches and left shoes on right feet. Morning orders are flying. Mother warning eyes are flashing.

Willie weighs the luxury of five more minutes of sleep against the Return of the Communicator.

His lower back throbs. Almost three years ago, a car hit him as he rode his bicycle home from work. Four herniated discs don't allow him to take the manual labor jobs he used to. Daylight construction hours would be so much better. But at least the night shift at Applebee's doesn't hurt.

He works as a short-order cook at the restaurant chain's Fourth Street N location, which closes at 2 a.m. By the time he finishes cleaning the kitchen, punches out and bikes home, it is after 3:30. It takes a half-hour or so to wind down and get to sleep. Then, blink. It's 7 again.

On this recent Tuesday morning, Willie plants his arms, push-up position, and hoists himself from the bed.

Zeneta has gotten the kids nearly ready. All Willie has to do is help load Avery, 1, Madison, 3, and Aiden, 2, into a little red bike trailer in the back yard. Then, he will straddle a rusty old bicycle and start his morning ritual: an 8-mile round-trip ride to two day care centers. Zeneta will walk Aliajh, 8, and Trinity, 4, to catch their school bus.

In late September, the family of seven, along with nearly 400 others, was evicted from the Mosley Motel on 34th Street. Zeneta and Willie, who had been living at the motel for 19 months, attended social service workshops sponsored by the city and were eligible to receive money to pay the deposit and half of the first month's rent on a three-bedroom house in Midtown. The home will cost them almost $200 less per month than the small room at the Mosley. They feel blessed and grateful for the help.

"It was a disgusting motel. It wasn't a good environment for a family, but we couldn't afford to leave. Every time I got paid, I just gave them all my money except for just a little bit for a few things we needed," Willie says.

They are relieved to be away from the Mosley, but the move complicated their mornings, especially at first.

To keep all the kids in the same schools and day cares, Zeneta would wake up in the new house at 4:30 a.m. They would all catch a 5:30 a.m. city bus to the Central depot. They would walk together for five blocks to the alley behind the abandoned Mosley. There, they would put two kids on their regular school bus, then bike the three younger ones to day care — one at a time.

They have since gotten a school bus to pick up their oldest kids closer to home. A day care teacher recently gave them the bike trailer that fits the youngest three.

Willie sometimes sees drivers' expressions as they pass him and his kids on their long rides.

"They look like 'Oh, they're just scraping by. They need to get a car. Look how he is getting his kids to school'. The important thing in life is not what people think of you. The only important thing is that I'm getting it done for my family," Willie says. "Education is No. 1 for us. We know they have clean clothes, good shoes, are at school on time and have food in their stomachs."

Zeneta, a certified nursing assistant, is trying to find part-time work. She wants to become a licensed practical nurse. Willie dreams of culinary school and running his own kitchen. They hope to one day own a home.

"Time and opportunity is all we need," Willie says. "I love hard work and can take care of my family and all the rest."

With a car, Zeneta could get the little ones to day care.

And Willie could rest up for another night's work.

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report. Contact John Pendygraft at pendygraft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8247. Follow @pendygraft.

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