All in the family
Families are knit together in different ways. For Asia Roberts-Mitchell, it’s being a mother to seven children and sharing custody of an eighth.
The children are all related biologically to each other, but not Roberts-Mitchell. Still, she’s their mom, raising them the best way she knows how -- together.
Roberts-Mitchell, 38, was an only child. When she was in her 20s, a friend asked Roberts-Mitchell to be the godmother -- and mother -- to a baby boy. Roberts-Mitchell became mom to Deshaun Johnson, now 15, just days after his birth. Two years later, the same birth mom had another baby, Takoya Johnson, now 13, and again asked Roberts-Mitchell to step up.
Four more children came over the years -- Simone Leak, 7; Disani Jackson, 5; Jeremiah Johnson, 3; and Takyah Johnson, 19 months. Roberts-Mitchell and her own mother, Elsie Roberts, share custody of Takyah, the littlest one. Roberts-Mitchell has legal guardianship or custody of the children, who are siblings both by nature and nurture. Most came to live with her as babies. Two of their cousins -- Allyssa Short, 13, and Robert Johnson, 11, who are brother and sister -- also joined the family a few years ago. The birth families wanted to keep the children together, Roberts-Mitchell said, but because of their own situations could not raise them.
With eight children, there are a lot of logistical things to work out daily. Roberts-Mitchell is a school bus driver, so the family’s morning starts early. Awake before 5 a.m., the older kids help the younger kids get ready for school. Then at 5:50 a.m. they head out in two cars – Roberts-Mitchell and her husband, Bryan Mitchell, at the wheels – for her mother’s house, daycare and work. The youngest, Takyah, lives with Roberts but sees her siblings daily. Roberts-Mitchell drives the bus for Maureen Joy Charter School, where three of her children attend. At the end of the day, they meet again at Roberts’ apartment, where they were on a sunny evening last week.
Takoya, 13, said that at dinnertime she helps fix the little kids’ plates first, then the big kids’. Simone, 7, said that on weekends the siblings and cousins watch television and do their homework. Her favorite TV shows are the dance reality show “Bring It” and Disney sitcoms “Shake It Up” and “Good Luck Charlie.” Simone said she’s not shy. She learned modeling, and demonstrated her model walk.
Simone talked about her favorite places to eat – Golden Corral, C&H Cafeteria and K&W Cafeteria. Jeremiah, 3, showed off what he learned at daycare – doing push-ups. Simone added that in school she has learned division, skip counting and multiplication. Disani talked about a preschool field trip to another school, where she got to play on a new playground.
Simone asked older brother Deshaun to turn on the video for Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy.” He obliged, and Simone and Disani commenced clapping to the music, while Jeremiah danced.
Deshaun said on weekends he pretty much stays in his room watching TV “and they come in and bother me,” he said good-naturedly. He also plays baseball and runs track.
Toddler Takyah was dancing to “Happy,” too, when Roberts-Mitchell pulled up to Roberts’ home with Robert, 11. They were greeted at the door by dancing children. Jeremiah gave Robert a hug.
Allyssa, 13, said that she and Robert first came to live with Roberts-Mitchell before the younger kids. Now the two eldest girls each share a room with the younger girls.
Disani, 5, came to live with the family when she was 3.
“They were happy about getting their smaller sister,” Roberts-Mitchell said. “It’s such a joy and blessing she’s here with us.” She said that she has told the children about their birth mother when it’s age appropriate, and about their fathers. It was a struggle for Disani when she first arrived, Roberts-Mitchell said, because she had been around abuse.
“But she opened up,” Roberts-Mitchell said, with help from sister Simone. They’re two years apart in age but play side by side.
“I do keep their biological family in their lives – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. When we have family gatherings, I invite them. I’m not just a lady name Asia. We accept each other,” Roberts-Mitchell said.
All the kids were in Roberts-Mitchell and Mitchell’s wedding two years ago. Simone rang a bell and said, “Here comes my mama!”
Roberts-Mitchell has one-on-one talks with the children, especially Allyssa and Robert, about what they’ve gone through.
“I tell them to pray and to write your feelings down on paper,” she said. They take up a whole row at church, City of Joy Ministries. She said they haven’t been on a family vacation since the oldest kids were the little kids. She hopes they can find a way to go to the beach this summer, but “I’m just a school bus driver,” and her husband has health problems and can’t work, she said.
Roberts-Mitchell said she doesn’t want her son Deshaun to end up on the streets or in a gang. She tells him not to get caught up in anything. She keeps a close watch.
“I want Deshaun to continue his education, play sports and go to college. I want all my kids to finish high school and go to college,” she said. “My husband and I aren’t their biological mother and father, but we are a strong family and we pray together and stay together.”