STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

"I want people to not be afraid to reach out and help someone else."

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

People who manage to overcome poverty in childhood don't succeed by accident. They work hard, of course, but usually, they also have some help.  And often, that help can be traced back to one person who decided to make a difference.

We're running an occasional series about the people who make that decision. We’re calling this series, "One Person Who Cared." To share your story of the One Person Who Cared, click here

Joy Mohammed and Paris Brown are loosely connected through family. They met once at a wedding. Then they became neighbors in the Russell Woods neighborhood of Detroit. Mohammed, who is nine years older than Brown, helped tutor her with schoolwork, and checked up on her at her house.

"I wouldn’t call myself a visitor. I was snooping," Mohammed says with a laugh. "I was watching to make sure that the kids were okay."

"Were you?" I ask Brown.

"Um, no …"

Things were getting worse at Brown’s house. Her mom worked, but couldn’t keep up with bills. At one point, utilities were shut off in their house.

"So basically, the heat and the electricity is out in the house," Brown says. "So we went and stayed down the street."

Mohammed had offered a place to stay. But Brown said no. She thought Mohammed was too strict.

Then, one morning before school, Brown had an asthma attack. The house she’d been living in was full of pets. But there were no adults around who could help with her attack.

"So the only person I could think to call was Joy," she says. "So I called her, and like within like five seconds, she was there. And she took me to the hospital. And I remember when she took me to the hospital, she told me that was the last day being there. That, like, I officially moved in with her. So, later on in the day, we went and got my things, and I’ve been here ever since."

"There was no plan for her, there was no hopes, no dreams, no guidance for her for her future. It was always just day-to-day - how are we going to get past today?"

It’s been two years. Joy Mohammed and her husband have guardianship over Brown.  

And things are different in Mohammed’s house. More rules. More expectations. But also, just different.

Brown tells me the story of watching Mohammed plan out a nursery before her son Xavier was born. Brown had never seen anyone plan that much, that far in advance.

"When she told me that was when I realized that the biggest deficiency in Paris’ upbringing was a lack of planning," Mohammed says. "From the moment that she had gotten here to being 17 and going on and on and on, there was no plan. There was no plan for her, there was no hopes, no dreams, no guidance for her for her future. It was always just day-to-day – how are we going to get past today?"

Mohammed says she’s trying to break that habit. She forces Brown to have a plan before she does anything. Before she even leaves the house.

Now, Brown is planning for the future. Mohammed pushed her to get a job this summer. And she went away to a program in East Lansing.  

"So, you plan to go to college?" I asked.

"Yes," she says, quickly. "I want to attend Michigan State University."

I ask if she always saw that as part of her future.

"I always knew I wanted to go to college," Brown says. "But I probably wouldn’t have gotten there."

Brown says, before, she had the desire. But she didn’t know all the steps to get there.

Now she’s learning the steps from Mohammed and her husband.

She’s learning it because Mohammed chose to get involved in her life. Chose to be there for a kid in need when no one else would.

"I find that nobody wants to do it because they’re afraid," Mohammed says. "They’re afraid of the repercussions, they’re afraid of the stigma, they’re afraid of the complications that come with helping someone out. And, we’ve been able to overcome all of that in the past two years ... Paris has been with me. And I want people to not be afraid to reach out and help someone else."

Brown says she still sees her mom, who now lives in a shelter. Sometimes there’s tension. But Mohammed says Brown will always be her mother’s daughter. Now, it’s like she has two moms.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. If you have a story to add to our One Person Who Cared series, click here

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
Related Content