Toni Jones with her grandchildren, from left, Antionette, 2, Judah, 11, Makenzie, 8, Justice, 12, (back), Manuel, 7, Unique, 5, Treyhauna, 8, and Makeeda, 8, inside her Brighton Heights home.
By Steve Ziants Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Nearly 30 years ago, Toni Jones, then a single mother of three and without much in the way of a future, changed her life.
Today, Ms. Jones, now a single grandmother of eight and a teacher of American history in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, lives the change she experienced.
For all of the past 10 years, at least some of her eight grandchildren have lived with her. For at least the past two, all eight -- ranging in age from 2 to 12 -- have lived with her in a North Side house that is small in size but grand in love and aspiration.
The reasons she has come to become mother to her eight grandchildren are as varied and sad as the headlines in the day's newspaper, including the killing of her son, Saleem Hudson, in 2004. It was a death that, she says, produced a rippling devastation on the rest of her family and became the impetus for why many of the children landed on her doorstep.
But hers is not a story of despair.
As Ms. Jones sat in her dining room on a rainy Monday evening, she talked only of hope and promise and of a litany of people who helped her make her way.
"No one plans on being a grandmother and raising the kids, but sometimes life does not turn out the way you planned," Ms. Jones said.
She is Example One.
It was the mid-1980s. She was 18 and pregnant. Her prospects were few. Her family grew. A son. Two daughters. She was alone.
"I kept asking: 'What was I going to do?' " she said.
She found a guardian angel in the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.
"I wanted to be a teacher and a journalist," she said. "This guy [at OVR] made it happen."
With a scholarship from OVR, and with the aid of public assistance for child care and a monthly bus pass, she set off on six years of college -- 21/2 at Community College of Allegheny County and 31/2 at the University of Pittsburgh. By 1995, she had earned a degree in urban sociology and a master's in history and in doing so became the first in her family to graduate college.
"It was difficult, but I had counselors and supervisors that said we believe in you, we believe you can do this," she said.
They weren't the only ones. There was a "grandmotherly woman named Ruth" in the Natrona Heights Head Start program who preached to her of her potential. There was Marsha Ekunfeo, an eighth-grade teacher who "really pushed me, who told me: 'You come back and do for others what I've done for you.' " There was Mitch Nickols, a church pastor who with his wife "tutored me and taught me etiquette."
"It seemed everything fell into place," Ms. Jones said.
She went on to work as a counselor at the Sojourner House, a residential treatment facility for mothers with addictions. "It helped me see what happened to other people in the community that didn't get the breaks I had," she said.
In 1999, she realized her dream to teach when she was hired at Schiller Classical Academy, a North Side magnet school for grades 6-8.
The happy Hallmark-movie ending, however, took a turn that day in September 2004 when her son was killed; the ground zero for why she now finds herself with her children's children in her house, in her care and with a mantel almost too small to hold all their Christmas stockings.
"Things could be worse," she said. "They could be in the system where I couldn't help them. Here, I know they're safe. I know they're well-cared for."
That doesn't mean it's easy. Rent. Utilities. Food. Clothes. It adds up.
"It's hard and I have to struggle a lot," she said. Her words, however, bear no hint of burden.
"I'm not the strong one because I'm strong. I'm the strong one because there's no one left."
Nabhi Christian Ministries, through the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Goodfellows Fund and Toys for Tots, will help ease that struggle this Christmas with toys for the eight children. Nabhi has worked with Goodfellows since 2005 and will help more than 300 families this Christmas season. Since 1947, the mission of Goodfellows has been to ensure that no child goes without a Christmas present.
It's a blessing Ms. Jones was hesitant to ask for because, as she said, "there's always someone worse off than you are."
That doesn't make the blessings any less deserved.
Christmas is about hope and hope is what Ms. Jones lives daily, whether at home or in her classroom.
"I'm determined that my grandchildren will have a chance," she said. "They will get a good education. They will be leaders and they will take pride in their community."
And this Christmas morning, they will have a little something extra under the tree.
"It's hard buying for eight kids," Ms. Jones said, "but I tell them whatever they get to be grateful for."
You can help by making a tax-deductible donation to Goodfellows by using the coupon on this page, or online by visiting www.post-gazette.com/goodfellows. Every donation will be acknowledged in the newspaper.
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