Young mother determined to succeed, help kids

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This Miss America is on the shy side.

Nakeiva Wallace, 26, a Crafton native, admits this as she smiles hesitantly for a photo at the offices of Life'sWork of Western Pennsylvania, a not-for-profit group in the Hill District that helps adults and youths ready themselves for employment and find jobs.

The polite and petite mother of three, nicknamed Miss America by one Life'sWork staff member, might not like being in front of the camera, but she has the look for it with her hair coiffed in an intricately braided updo she styled herself.

She's a 2011 graduate of Empire Beauty School, and she's also recently self-unemployed. She left a job at Target in November because of the barrier of transportation.

"They wanted me to do 4:30 to 11:30 at night and I couldn't do it because of the last bus," Ms. Wallace said of the store in Ross. She lived in Homewood.

She has yet to take her State Board of Cosmetology exam, but she says she would welcome a position as an assistant or a receptionist.

For now, she spends 20 hours a week, Monday through Thursday, job searching and training at Life'sWork, whose staff she thanks in her polite way -- "Miss Stacy; she's downstairs in the computer lab. Mr. Frank, Ms. Heidi because I had housing issues."

The five-hour-a-day "Work Ready" program Ms. Wallace takes part in is designed to help people on their way back into the workforce. That road for her has been rough of late, especially since the week after Halloween when she left her job.

She ran into problems looking for housing when trying to move herself and her 8-, 6- and 1-year-old daughters out of Homewood -- she says she gave up her Section 8 voucher (now known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program) when she failed repeatedly in her search.

"I couldn't find anything," she said, "so I just started filling out applications, going to talk to people in the rental offices," which paid off with a three-bedroom she eventually signed a lease for in Wilkinsburg, up the street from her mother, who Ms. Wallace says she appreciates as a built-in baby sitter.

It has been literally back-to-back life changes since then, with enrolling in the Life'sWork program one Monday and then moving the next day.

And now Christmas is coming.

"I've had a hectic year," she said.

She is trying to adjust, as are her girls, Nataeya Johnson, the eldest and bookworm; Chayona Wallace, the hip-hop-loving ballerina; and Justice Williamson, the baby and troublemaker. Nataeya, shy like her mother, is supposed to have her own room, "but they all want to sleep in the same room," Ms. Wallace says.

Last year, Santa did her shopping at Walmart and with help from their grandmother, too, the girls got scooters, baby dolls, coats, coloring books, school supplies.

This year, a Toys for Tots distribution at Life'sWork in mid-December helped Ms. Wallace and dozens of other parents like her -- 110 children of Life'sWork clients were served.

While Ms. Wallace spends her days in her vocational program at Life'sWork, Nataeya and Chayona attend Pittsburgh Minadeo Elementary School and Justice is at Stubblefield's Home Day Care in Homewood.

"They don't want a lot of stuff. They're not children that want a lot," Ms. Wallace said. "But I try my best."

The Post-Gazette's Goodfellows Fund has helped make sure that needy children end up with toys every Christmas since 1947. Consider making a tax-deductible contribution to support the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program and the Salvation Army's Treasures for Children program by visiting

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