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Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2006 08:27 am

Lucky Number Seven

When the Dickerson kids needed a second chance, Doris Chambers was there.

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There’s something special about Doris Chambers’ house. It’s not the furniture — a mishmash of sturdy specimens from a local discount store. It’s not the décor — mainly family photos, some kids’ artwork, plus a corkboard covered with fliers from social-service agencies. And it’s certainly not the house itself — the lower half of a nondescript North End duplex, with sand-colored linoleum, olive carpet, and bedrooms the size of postage stamps.

What makes Doris Chambers’ house so special is the steadfast hum — the hiss-pop of fish frying on the stove, the scritch-scratch of pencils doing homework, the rhythm of sneakers jumping rope on the driveway, the stereo thumping, little girls laughing.

Chambers’ house is never quiet. It’s home to seven children, ranging in age from barely six to 17. They aren’t Chambers’ offspring, or even her kin. They’re just a set of siblings sucked down by family crisis until Chambers took them in. Since June 2005, she has been the legal guardian of all seven kids.

As anybody could guess, rearing that many children requires a knack for organization, a well-developed system of discipline, and a genius for menu planning — especially on Chambers’ modest salary as a teaching assistant at Douglas School.

Raising this particular group of seven requires still more: doctors and therapists and even a Chicago orthodontist to straighten out physical and emotional problems. Their father died in 2002, and their mother succumbed to a crack-cocaine habit that eventually landed her in prison. Before the kids came to Chambers, the youngest five spent several years with an uncle they unanimously describe as neglectful, “abusive and perverted.”

Who would want to take on that many kids with that much heavy baggage? Chambers wasn’t just willing; she saw it as “a privilege.”
“I am doing this because it was on my heart to do,” she says. “I was just compelled.”

The baby is Mariya (pronounced “Mariah”), who just turned 6 and started kindergarten. Then there are Myra, 9, and 13-year-old twins, Lakesha and Tamesha, known around the house as Keke and Meme. The only boy of the bunch is 14-year-old “Li’l” Morris, named after their dad, Morris Dickerson. A freshman playing junior-varsity football at Lanphier High School, Li’l Morris made the high honor roll last year at Grant Middle School.

Then comes Marquetta, an outgoing 16-year-old who seems to see herself as the caretaker of the pack. When the kids gather to tell a reporter their story, they let Marquetta do all the talking. When they reminisce about their abusive uncle, they recite the legend of how brave Marquetta avoided a belt-lashing by jumping on his back. When Chambers recites the history of how the kids came to her, she points to Marquetta as the force that brought them all to her home.

But the oldest of the seven is Morrisa. She takes cosmetology classes and, for the past three years, has been working at McDonald’s, where she’s now a manager trainee. Morrisa is also named after her father, and she inherited his subdued personality and his work ethic.

“Marquetta’s always been the one that talks a lot. She can talk forever,” Morrisa says. “I don’t say anything unless I’m spoken to. I’m more like ‘You ask me a question, I’ll answer you, and that will be about it.’ ”

Even then, her words are soft and swift, delivered with a free pass for the listener to ignore her. She behaves as though her goal in life is to avoid being noticed.

Chambers, though, singled out Morrisa for a special job that could help shape the destiny of her younger siblings. She asked Morrisa to be the one to “break the cycle,” to finish school, graduate, and go to college. She agreed. Now 17, Morrisa will graduate from Springfield High School in May and plans to attend Western Illinois University.

When her mother, Mitzi Dickerson, was that age, she had already dropped out of school and had four babies.

These seven aren’t all of Mitzi’s children. There’s another sister, 18-year-old Monique, who was sent to live with an auntie in Chicago soon after their father died. Monique recently had a baby.

Mitzi has four others, even older, who were taken by child-protective services in Chicago, before she met these children’s father, Morris.

The kids have a genuine fondness for their parents. They remember their dad as a hard worker who, before his death, was working two jobs — as a cook at Olive Garden and at Smokey Bones.

They remember Mitzi as a good mom, too, until sometime after they left Chicago in 1997. They have warm memories of a stable family life but somewhat gauzy recollections of how it disintegrated. They were simply too young when everything went wrong.

“We love our parents. We all do. My dad, he was a sweet man, and my mom is sweet, too,” Morrisa says. “They weren’t violent or anything. They weren’t arguing all the time. They were a loving couple.”

Most of their dad’s relatives live in Chicago, so Mitzi and Morris had a built-in support network. “They were feeding us, clothing us, helping us with school, everything. We didn’t have a bad influence around,” Morrisa says.

The family moved to Springfield at the urging of Morris’ sister, who already lived here and missed having family around. Ironically, small-town life strained Mitzi and Morris’ 15-year bond.

“I don’t know what happened, but basically their relationship slowly fell apart. They weren’t as strong [here] as they were in Chicago,” Morrisa says.

Mitzi made friends with people she met working the graveyard shift at the post office and also developed an intimate friendship with a woman — a convicted felon named Regina Campbell. In 2000, when Morris died unexpectedly, the relationship with Campbell became Mitzi’s main interest.

In April 2004 they were arrested for armed robbery after a cabdriver near the Old State Capitol Plaza spotted the pair using a board to beat a man in the head. It was the finale to a night-long crime spree that included robbing several downtown pedestrians at knifepoint and an attempt to break into at least one car at the Amtrak station. The women told police they were trying to get money to buy crack cocaine. Mitzi and her friend pleaded guilty and were each sentenced to eight years in prison.

Doris Chambers has always loved kids. Growing up in Cairo, as the middle child of a farmer and his domestic-helper wife, she would volunteer to take care of her older sister’s baby, her friends’ kids, too.

“I’ve always had a fascination about working with children,” she says.

After graduation, she eventually landed in Detroit, where she met her future husband. When their marriage became rocky, she moved home to her mother, who was by then living in Springfield.

With three sons of her own — the youngest is now 23 — Chambers embarked on a career of working with kids. She started at Community Action Agency in 1980, helping teenagers find jobs. In 1984, she became a Family Service Center home visitor and, later, coordinator of the parent-support group, teaching pregnant and parenting teenagers how to be mothers. Chambers says that duty motivated her to find a job that allowed her to help kids make healthy choices before it was too late. In 1988, she started working with the Springfield Urban League as coordinator of the after-school program.

It was in that capacity that Chambers became an involuntary eyewitness to the collapse of the Dickerson family.

When they first enrolled, the Dickerson kids had what appeared to be a stable home life. They had two parents, whereas many other kids lived in single-parent households. Some were even being raised by older siblings.

But over time Chambers noticed a certain neediness among the Dickerson kids, especially in Marquetta, who was then just 8 or 9 years old.

“Marquetta would cling to me, and, in her clinging, she would give up information about what was happening at home. It didn’t sound good,” Chambers says.

When she gave the kids rides to their house, she often noticed the smell of alcohol on Mitzi’s breath.

“I began to see their situation decline because of what was going on with their mom. Dad was trying to be the glue,” Chambers says.

After his death, the situation became even worse as Mitzi struggled to cope with addiction and grief. Morrisa and Marquetta use a variety of sympathetic terms as they tiptoe gingerly toward a precise description of their mother’s emotional state.

“Our mom wasn’t strong enough. She wanted to be strong for all of us, but she couldn’t handle it,” Morrisa says. “She was, like, hung out on the street somewhat — and you couldn’t do the street and then have seven kids to take care of, too.”

The older sisters say they missed most of the 6th and 7th grade, taking turns staying home with their younger siblings. They knew they had to maintain a certain semblance of normalcy to avoid getting evicted from Brandon Courts, but they didn’t always know quite how to do it.

Marquetta recalls one agonizing incident when a housing-authority administrator came knocking at the door on a school day. Realizing that her mother could get in trouble if the administrator discovered their precarious situation, Marquetta just did what she had to do to protect her baby sister, who was then just a year old.

“I regret this so much,” Marquetta says, “but I stuck Mariya in the closet because I didn’t want them to see her. When I went to the door, [the administrator] asked me what I was doing at home. I said I wasn’t feeling good, and my mom was at the store, and she would be right back.”

When pressed, the sisters can now tell the truth about their mom. “She did drugs. She prostituted,” Marquetta says. “Basically she was just out there doing whatever you can think of — robbing, stealing, whatever.”

Any bitterness or resentment or anger they might have is channeled into fervent wishes for Mitzi to get better.

“We still love our mom. We’re never gonna forget her. When she gets out [of prison], we’ll be happy to see her,” Marquetta says. “The thing is, we pray that while she’s in there, she gets her life together.”

At Lincoln Correctional Center, Mitzi Dickerson claims she’s doing just that. She’s enrolled in GED class, she’s staying out of “seg,” and she has taken responsibility for the actions that brought her here. She doesn’t dispute anything her children have said; she admits that she abandoned them in her pursuit of drugs.

“I just started running the streets, doing things that I normally don’t do,” she says. “All this was new to me, and I just ruined my life.”

The memory of her husband’s death brings her to tears, because he died believing she had left him for a woman. “He was a loving father, a good husband, just a wonderful guy,” she says. “When he died, I didn’t get a chance to even tell him how sorry I had been.”

She reacted by sinking even further into addiction and crime. A few months after Morris’ death, she officially deserted her children, leaving a note on the kitchen table. On a piece of lined paper, she left a message telling the kids that she couldn’t take care of them and that they should go stay with their aunt and uncle. At the time, she thought she was saving the kids from the foster-care system, but she now counts that decision to leave them with their aunt as one of her most painful mistakes.

“I knew they were involved in drugs, but [the aunt] had a maintained life,” Mitzi says. “She was more stable than I was, and I didn’t know anybody else who would take all the kids.”

Besides, she recalls, the couple had repeatedly offered to take care of her children. In hindsight, Mitzi believes these relatives simply wanted to gain access to the $135 “survivor” check each child received monthly from the Social Security Administration.

“I set myself up for that. I sure did,” Mitzi says. “I just took the easy way out, thinking [the kids’ aunt] was going to be there for me, and she wasn’t. They weren’t there for the kids, either.”

Public records indicate the aunt and uncle were recently evicted from a rental property and, last month, were the subjects of a domestic-battery police report.

Court documents show that Mitzi specifically granted guardianship to the aunt, not the uncle. “I knew enough about him to know that he wasn’t a good father to her kids, so what would make him a good father to mine?” she asks, recognizing her own lack of logic.

She didn’t learn the distressing details of her kids’ life with their uncle until Doris Chambers brought Morrisa and Marquetta to visit her in prison.

Chambers gained legal guardianship of the two older girls in July 2003, after they got locked out of their house. It happened one night after they had performed in St. Louis with the Kuumba Dancers, a “praise dance” troupe that Chambers founded.

She delivered the dancers to their respective homes and drove away assuming that they would all be welcomed by their families. But Morrisa and Marquetta, then just 11 and 12, telephoned Chambers, saying that they had been “put out” by their uncle. She instructed them to go file a police report.

A few days later, she got a call from the Department of Children and Family Services, asking her whether the two girls could stay with her. She agreed to keep them for one night but, by morning, realized that she couldn’t turn them away.

They moved out of her two-bedroom apartment and into a four-bedroom duplex. It seemed spacious — everyone had a bedroom — but the girls wanted Chambers to find a way to help their younger siblings escape their uncle and aunt.

They describe an environment of filth and neglect in which coldwater baths were permitted once a week, with each child bathing in the same tub of water. The toilet was flushed only once a day, hair washed and rebraided every third month.

“If you went to their house, you wouldn’t even want to step inside. It was a stench,” Marquetta says.

Worse, though, was their uncle’s rigid and random list of rules. No one was allowed to get up in the morning before he was up, not even to use the bathroom. No one was allowed to speak during meals. Laughter was a punishable offense.

His temper was at its best during the first week of the month, when checks arrived and the kids’ Link cards were recharged. He would buy beer and marijuana, chicken and ribs. Later in the month, the kids had to walk — they had no transportation — to St. John’s Breadline if they wanted food.

Morrisa and Marquetta took the brunt of their uncle’s wrath. “We had lip. We had say-so over stuff,” Morrisa says. “He really didn’t like Marquetta at all. She would speak her mind.”

The girls also say their uncle “tickled” and touched them inappropriately. Their aunt never intervened.

Chambers helped Morrisa and Marquetta stay in touch with their siblings. She would drive past their uncle’s house, and stop and visit whenever the children were outside.

Sometimes the girls would go for an overnight visit, willing to tolerate their uncle for the pleasure of seeing their siblings. They admit now that they also hoped to find some kind of evidence that would convince DCFS to intercede, but when they made a complaint it was deemed “unfounded” by investigators and succeeded only in irritating their uncle.

Their mother, Mitzi, was also trying to help. When Chambers brought Morrisa and Marquetta to visit, Mitzi discovered that this woman who had met her kids in an after-school program was truly willing to take care of all of them. In December 2004, she mailed Chambers temporary-guardianship agreements for the younger five.

Chambers decided to try filing for guardianship in court. The hearing was set for June 16, 2005. When she got up that morning, she felt a strange urge to check on her potted plants. She stepped onto her porch and found a boy sleeping in her lawn chair. It was Li’l Morris. His uncle had kicked him out of the house. His sisters were thrilled to see him.

“We hugged him and everything — even though he was funky. We got past all that,” Marquetta says. They took him with them to court — dirty, nappy, and smelly, as a kind of living, breathing Exhibit A. At the next hearing, the judge granted Chambers guardianship over the five remaining siblings.

They’ve all been with Chambers for more than a year now. In that time, she has seen all seven improve. Painfully shy Li’l Morris has learned to speak. Lakesha has learned to s mile, thanks to braces to straighten her teeth. One child with a developmental delay has made amazing progress. All seven go to school neat and clean, and most are on the honor roll.

Chambers is teaching them independence. They are all learning how to do laundry, shop for groceries, cook basic foods, and clean the bathroom.

“We’re not lacking anything. We’ve got everything we need. We can match up to anybody now,” Marquetta says. “We are happy.”

Chambers and her 23-year-old son Adam, who still lives at home, have made significant adjustments to help the Dickerson kids. Adam must share his room with Li’l Morris and the rest of the house with six younger girls. He says he doesn’t mind the inconvenience. “They’re growing stronger together, looking out for one another . . . . That’s how I see it. I’m proud of them,” he says.

Chambers has made a financial sacrifice. She took a significant chunk of her retirement account to buy bunk beds and a vehicle to accommodate the Dickerson crew. She bought a $500 car for Morrisa and cell phones for the two older girls. When the seasons change, she replenishes their wardrobes with shopping sprees at the Salvation Army and Goodwill. But she’s not complaining.

“If I had a bigger house,” she says, “I’d take more kids.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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