By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“I don’t remember the last time it’s been this quiet in here. From the day the kids arrived, it’s been a struggle,” says Larry of life with his half brothers and half sisters. “This is definitely not The Cosby Show.”
When his siblings first got here, the most obvious problem was language. Though Kishana and Latanya spoke some English, communication was a constant difficulty. The younger children spoke no English at all — only Dutch — and teaching them had to be an immediate priority so they could start school as quickly as possible. Thankfully, both Larry and Diane have degrees in early childhood development — a field that focuses heavily on language acquisition.
“I now tell everyone I meet to take some classes in childhood development,” says Diane, “because you never know when you’re going to need it.”
Language aside, there were the obvious financial concerns — English lessons, new clothes, school supplies, and food for 10 people aren’t cheap. Making matters worse, Larry’s income barely exceeds the financial threshold to qualify for financial aid from the state. “If I made a fraction less than what I do, I could get some help,” says Larry. “But as it stands now, we’re on our own.”
Cementing that reality was Larry’s decision to secure legal guardianship over the children: “That means I’m not only legally obligated to care for them, but if they do something, I could be held legally responsible for that too.”
To prevent such a scenario, Larry sat everyone down to establish the rules of the house — rules that he deemed essential to safely navigating the often dangerous streets of South L.A. But after 11 years of taking care of themselves, the kids were skeptical of the need for Larry’s rules — especially his stance on what colors they could wear.
“I thought that was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard,” remembers Kishana. “Don’t wear blue or red — what kind of ridiculous rule is that? But he was absolutely right — Larry lives in the ghetto, and the gangs are crazy there.”
But though the kids came to accept the wisdom of Larry’s neighborhood-survival tactics, simple rules — rules designed to maintain sanity and order when 10 people are living under the same roof — were ignored.
“I know they’re all teenagers,” says Larry, “but you would think it would make sense to them that Diane can’t cook dinner if all the dishes are dirty. But our efforts to get them to help out were met with such resistance it was mind-boggling.”
“I think that the kids finally felt safe,” reflects Watani on his children’s situation, “and with that feeling of safety came the opportunity to express and to act out on some of the anger they’d kept bottled up over the years — even if that anger was completely misdirected.”
This, however, was small consolation to Larry and Diane.
“It was enough to make you wonder why you’re killing yourself trying to make this situation work if you can’t even get someone to take out the trash,” says Larry. “The first year they were here, I had to go see a doctor because my blood pressure was getting out of control from the stress. But Diane and I said when we took the kids in, we’re not just going to put a roof over their head and feed them. We’re going to raise them like our own — and worry, worry, worry that they’re doing okay.”
Tensions in the house eased slightly last year when Kishana decided to quit school, start working and get herself a place with her sister Natisha. “I’ve basically been looking after myself since I was 10,” says Kishana. “It was tough for me to follow someone else’s rules.”
After a brief spell working at Del Taco, she now has a job as a “personal banker” for U.S. Bank in Gardena — arranging loans and selling investment opportunities. Now 23, tall and thin with a quick wit and huge personality — traits that make her a natural businesswoman — Kishana is doing well on her own.
“I have the fourth best sales numbers in my company for the Los Angeles area,” she boasts. But though she seems relatively satisfied with her professional career, she’s yet to make a close friend in the two years she’s been here. “I wanted to make friends here, I really did,” she says, “but it just didn’t work out. Everyone is always scheming in America. I met a bunch of people when I got here, but it turns out they all smoked weed, and I don’t mess with that. So I decided I don’t need anybody — I have my family and that’s enough.”
A perceptible tinge of pain beneath her veneer of toughness, however, seems to indicate that this isn’t the whole truth. The disappointment she felt at finding out her new friends used drugs must have been a stinging reminder of her troubled mother, Nisha, left behind in Suriname — a mother she may never see again. Nisha has struggled with overcoming her addiction, and though she and Kishana still speak on occasion, Nisha’s prospects for coming to America to get help are slim. She and Watani have divorced since his return — punching another hole in the American dream Watani promised his family. Trust, then, may not come easily to Kishana or her siblings, yet another obstacle Larry must face in helping them adjust to America.
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