MIAMI – Nearly 19 years ago, Willie Singleton was born to a woman whose powerful addiction to crack cocaine trumped any maternal instinct to safeguard the fetus growing inside of her.
Six months following his eventful birth, Willie landed in the home of two people who had the desire and temperament to undo the damage of his mother’s destructive habit.
That the young man whose fragile little nervous system could barely stand the closing of a door or the sound of laughter graduated high school with honors and is now a college student (Miami Dade College) comes as no surprise to Pauline and Ejazul Mohammed, “foster parents,” according the system responsible for placing Willie with them, but simply “Mom and Dad” to Willie.
Attending the last of more than 18 years’ worth of bi-annual court hearings, Willie and his parents shared their story of inspiration and love with a packed courtroom on Monday, Jan. 5.
So phenomenal is Willie’s story that his final hearing was presided over by two robed jurists – Dependency Judge George Sarduy and General Master Steven Lieberman. Sarduy technically presided over the case solo, but graciously shared his bench with Lieberman, who had presided over several of Willie’s routine hearings over the years.
Sarduy purposely began the day – and the year – with the young man’s case.
“For the New Year, this will be the first case that we hear in division eight. This will set the tone hopefully for the remainder of the year,” Sarduy said before asking Willie to share his secrets to success.
Willie addressed a courtroom filled with court and child welfare agency personnel who were craving a story with a happy ending. Sounding like an inspirational speaker instead of a college freshman, he told his captive audience that, “You have to have self-motivation and you got to put God in everything you do. Set aside all your negative aspects and downfalls and focus on your…well being and what do you want to accomplish.”
What Willie has accomplished so far is remarkable. He graduated in the top 15 percent of Miami Norland High School’s Class of 2008, where he also sang in the choir, worked on the school’s newspaper and participated in its tourism, Future Business Leaders of America and 5000 Role Models programs.
What he hopes to accomplish includes a bachelor’s degree in business from a Florida college or university and a master’s degree in information technology from Cornell University – where he has applied and is optimistically awaiting word of his acceptance.
Pauline Mohammed, a former registered nurse, said her profession helped her to care for Willie, but that love, silence and comfort allowed him to eventually grow out of a super-sensitive nervous system. Aside from childhood surgery to correct crossed eyes (he visits Bascom Palmer twice yearly for follow-up), Willie’s development has been manageable. The Mohammeds also have two other foster sons who Pauline Mohammed said are recipients of the same loving treatment – treatment afforded to all of the 20 or so medically needy foster children to have resided with the family during the past 24 years.
The Mohammeds have four adult children and 13 grandchildren, all of whom adore Willie and consider him their brother, undoubtedly providing the foundation for his academic success.
Pauline is quick to point out that Willie’s goodness is not limited to his books.
“He’s a really good kid. He’s a respectable kid. At church, they think the sun rises and falls on him, especially the older people. He opens the car door and gets them in the car. He’s a real gentleman,” she boasted.
Dad Ejazul Mohammed sat quietly during an interview with the South Florida Times shortly before the hearing in the courtroom, nodding in agreement as his wife spoke of their son’s accomplishments.
Pauline also points out that the only reason she and her husband did not adopt Willie was to protect his entitlement to state benefits afforded foster children (medical coverage, free tuition), “and [Willie] knows that,” she added.
The Mohammeds’ impact on his life is not lost on Willie. He’s aware that the pitfalls which envelop many foster children (homelessness, drug addiction and mediocrity), could have enveloped him too, if not for his foster family.
“I had the love and support of such wonderful foster parents,” and that, he said, has made all the difference.
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Willie SIngleton