Here's another story that touched me deeply. You will see why by the end of the story

Hero of the 'Hood

By all odds, Mike Powell should never have survived. Addiction, drug pushing, prison or early death are the most likely cards dealt to street kids growing up in the "jungle" of South-Central Los Angeles - a violent combat zone of drug wars, gang slayings, prostitution and crime. But Mike's young life had a special purpose. For eight years, he braved terror and brutalization to keep his family of seven kids together. Incredibly, during that time, no one ever discovered that the only real parent the family had was just another kid.

When Mike was born, his father, Fonso, was in prison for drug dealing. Mike's fifteen-year-old mother, Cheryl, dropped out of school to support the baby. "Without you, my life could have been different," she later told Mike over and over. It was the guilty glue that would make Mike stick with her through the coming years of horror.

Fonso was released from prison when Mike was four, but instead of security, the six-foot-five, 300-pound Vietnam vet brought a new kind of fear into Mike's life. Fonso had sever psychological problems, and his discipline was harrowing. For minor infractions, such as slamming a door, he forced Mike to do pushups for hours. If the little boy collasped, his father beat him. So fanatical was Fonso's insistence on school attendence that Cheryl had to hide Mike in a closet when he sick.

Perhaps it was some dark premotion that drove Fonso to toughen up his young son and teach him self-reliance far beyond his hears. Mike was barely eight when his father was murdered in a run-in with drug dealers.

Overnight, the protection and income Fonso had provided were gone. It was back to the streets for twenty-four year old Cheryl, who now had three kids: Mike; Raf, age four; and Amber, one year. Life was bitterly hard, and another baby was on the way.

It wasn't long before Cheryl brought home Marcel, a cocaine addict who terrorized the family even more than Fonso did. When Mike innocently questioned what Marcel had done with Cheryl's wages as a trasit worker, Marcel broke the little boy's jaw so badly it had to be wired in place.

Marcel soon got Cheryl hooked on cocaine, and the two would disappear on drug binges, at first leaving the children locked in a closet but eventrally just leaving them alone for weeks at a time. Cheryl had convined Mike that if anyone found out what was happening, the children would be separated and sent to foster homes. Remebering his father's fierce admonitions to "be a man", the eight year old became consumed by the need to keep his family together, no matter what.

To make sure no one suspected anything, Mike began cleaning the apartment himself, doing laundry by hand and keeping his sisters fed, diapered, and immaculate. He svavenged junk shops for hairbrushes, bottles, and clothes, whatever they could afford, and covered up for his mother's absences witha n endless litany of excuses. Cheryl and Marcel were soon buring though everything the family had in order to buy crack - even money for rent and the children's food. When their money situation became desperate, Mike quietly quit elementary school at nine to support the family himself. He cleaned yards, unloaded trucks, and stocked liquor stores, always working before dawn or late at night so the smaller children wouldn't be alone while awake.

As Cheryl and Marcel's drug binges and absences became longer and more frequent, their brief returns became more violent. Sinking deeper into addiciton, Cheryl would simply abandon Marcel when his drugs ran out and hook up with someone who was better supplied. A crazed Marcel would then rampage though the slum apartment, torturing and terrorizing the children for information about where more money was hidden or where he could find their mother.

One night, Marcel put Mike's two year old sister in a plastic bag and held it closed. Without air, the toddler's eyes were bulging and she was turing blue. "Where's your mother?" the addict screamed. Sobbing, Mike and little five year old Raf threw themselves at Marcel again and again, beating on his back with small, ineffectual fists. In desperation, Mike finally sank his teeth into Marcel's neck, praying the savage tormentor would drop the plastic bag and pick on him instead. It worked. Marcel wheeled and threw Mike through the window, cutting him with shattered glass and breaking his arm.

Cheryl's parents, Mabel and Otis Bradly, loved their grandchildren deeply, but they worked long hours and lived a difficult multiple-bus commute away, and could see them only rarely. Sensing the family was truggling, Mabel sent toys, clothes, and diapers, never dreaming that even the diapers were being sold by Cheryl for drug money. Although Mabel's constant phone calls and uncondional love became Mike's only achor of support, he didn't dare tell her that anything was wrong. He feared his gentle grandmother would have a heart attack if she learned the truth - or worse, a violent confrontation with Marcel.

The family was forced to move constatly, sleeping in movie theaters, abandoned cars and even fresh crime scences at times. Mike washed their clothes in public restrooms and cooked on a single-burner hot plate. Eventrally, Cheryl and Marcel always caught up with them.

Dispite the movies, Mike insisted the younger kids attend school, get good grades and be model citizens. To clasmates, teachers, and even their grandmother, the children always seemed normal, well-groomed and happy. No one could have imagined how they lived or that they were being raised by another child. Somehow, Mike had managed to sort though the good intentions but brutal menthods of his father, and blend them with the loving example of his grandmother, to form a unique value system. He loved his family deeply, and in return, the children love, trusted and belived in him. "You don't have to end up on the street," he told them. "See what Mamma is like? Stay off drugs!" Secretly he was terrified that his mother would one day O.D. in front of them.

Over the next few years, Cheryl was jailed repeatedly for possession and sale of narcotics and other crimes, and was sometimes gone for up to a year at a time. Out of jail, she continued to have more children, making the family's financial situation increasingly critical. Hard as Mike tried, it was becoming impossible for him to care for three new babies and support a family of seven kids at the same time. One Christmas ther was only a can of corn and a box of macoaroni and cheese for all of them to share. Their only toys for the past year had been a single McDonald's Happy Meal figurine for each child. For presents, Mike had the children wrap the figurines in newspaper and exchange them. It was one of their better Christmases.

The young teenager now lived in constant anxiety, but still refused to fall into the easier would of drug dealing and crime. Instead, he braved the dangerous streets late at night selling doctored macadamia nuts, which, to half-crazed addicts, looked like thirty-dollar crack-cocaine "rocks". He knew he rised his life every time he took such chances, but he felt he had few choices. In the nightly siege of gang and drug warfare, the odds were against him, though. By age fifteen, Mike had been shot eight times.

Worse, his reserves of strength and hope were running dangerously low. For as long as he could remember, he had lived with relentless daily fears: Will we be able to eat today? Will we all be on the street tonight? Will Marcel show up tomorrow?

And after more than forty moves, it seemed they had finally hit rock bottom. "Home" was now the Frontier Hotel, a filthy dive on Skid Row where pimps and prostitutes stalked the halls and drug dealers went down on the stairways. The kids had watched a murder in the lobby, and Mike was now afraid to leave them them alone or to sleep. For the few night they had been there, he had stayed up with a baseball bad to kill rats as they crawled under the door.

Sleep-deprived and overwhelmed by stress, Mike felt crushed by the responsibities of his life. It was 2 am. His brother and sisters were huddled under a single blanket on the floor. Michelle, the youngest baby, was crying, but he had no food for her. The boy who had shouldered his secret burden for so many years suddenly lost hope.

Stumbing to the window in despair, Mike stook at the edge, steeling himself to jump. Silently asking his family to forgive him, he closed his eyes and took a last deep breath. Just then, a woman across the street spotted him and began screaming. Mike reeled back from the edge and fell into a corner, sobbing. For the rest of the night, he rocked the hungry baby and prayed for help.

It came a few days later on the eve of Thanksgiving 1993, shortly before Mike's sixteenth birthday. A church outreach group had set up a sidewalk kitchen nearby to feed the hungry, and MIke took the children there for free sandwitchs. So impressed were the volunteers with him and the polite youngsters that they began asking gentle questions. A dam deep inside Mike broke, and his story spilled out.

Within days, the church group was at work trying to find the family permanent shelter, but no single foster home could take all seven children. Advised that the family would have to be separated "for their own good", Mike adamantly refused, threating to disappear back into the jungle with the kids. the only person he trusted to keep the family together was his grandmother. Reluctantly, he finally told her of their life for the past eight years.

Stunned and horrified, Mabel Bradley immediately agreed to take the children, but the Los Angeles County social welfare system balked. Mabel was sixty-six, retired, and the children's grandfather was diabetic. How would the Bradleys possibly cope with seven youngers? But Mike knew better. He hid the children and refused to negotiate any alternative except his grandparents. Finally the social workers and courts agreed, and an ecstatic Mabel and Otis Bradley were grated permanent legal custody of the children. Somehow every child had survived unscathed. Nothing short of miracles, it seemed - and Mike's unfathomable strenth and love - had kept them together.

Mabel has since returned to work and now willingly comutes more than one hundred miles a day, while Otis cares for the children. Mike works as many jobs as he can to help support the family, but smart, willing and honest as he is, only minimum-wage jobs are avaiable. More than anyone, he realizes the value of an education and is working on his GED.

His dream is to someday start a small company that can simultaneously employ anc counset street kids like himself who are without the traditonal education and skills to make it in the normal work world, but who don't want to be forced back to street life because they can't find work.

Mike is also dedicated to reaching other inner-city kids though his music. A talented singer and songwriter, he writes inspirational rap with his own unique message of hope. Having seen so many kids die in his young life, he wants desperately to reach those who might live. "Surviving is against the odds, but it happens, and we have to get that message out. If a thousand people hear me and two kids don't get shot, don't deal, don't die, then we've done something."

There is little time to sing right now, though, for Mike and his family are still struggling themselves. But Raf, Amber, and Chloe are now stepping proudly into Mike's big shoes to do their part at home. They are the three oldest street babies he raised - and taught to live with courage and hope.

They remember well all of Mike's words, whispered fiercely to them over and over during the bad times, during the many moves when, each time, they had to leave everything behind: "Whatever you have, be grateful for it! Even if you have nothing, be grateful you're alive! Believe in yourself. Nobody is stopping you. Have a goal. Survive!"

Mike Powell will have his company for street kids some day. And there will be time, later, for the rest of his dreams too. Mike is, after all, only nineteen.

- Paula McDonald