Micheal Cox grew up essentially parentless on the streets of Wilson, selling drugs and stealing cars with the people he knew as friends. Methodist Home for Children helped him escape this childhood and go on to earn a Master of Social Work at N.C. State University. He spoke about the experience at Epicurean Evening 2011.
I’m glad to say my life today is good. By most accounts, I should be dead or in jail right now. Many of my childhood friends are. Or they’re living day-to-day with four or five children of their own. I’m here now, strong and optimistic, because of God and 16 years of unconditional support from Methodist Home for Children.
I grew up on the east side of Wilson, in a low-income neighborhood known for crime. When I was 8 years old, my father went to prison for selling drugs. My mother was left behind with four children, ages 2 to 9. Our family wasn’t perfect before then—I witnessed a lot of domestic violence as a kid—but I can look back at that point in my life and see how it all began to unravel for me.
After my father went to prison, my mother started using drugs and she stopped being a parent. Social Services took me, and my three brothers, and placed us in separate foster homes. Later, they reunited us in the home of a relative, where we were supposed to be kept safe and sound. But we weren’t. We lived every day under that roof with profanity, verbal assaults, neglect and insults. We were told that we’d never amount to anything. We’d be just like our parents … In prison. On crack.
After a while I started to believe those words. And then I started to live those words.
At age 9, I tried drugs, starting with marijuana. At 10, I sold drugs. At 11, I stole things … including cars by the time I was 12. Everyone saw me as an angry and rebellious kid, and I was. But I was also confused, depressed and embarrassed. I cried a lot and I prayed a lot. My older brother tried to stand in emotionally as my mother, but he wasn’t any stronger than I was. At age 16, he went to prison for killing a man.
I say this, not as an excuse but as a fact of life: Trouble is always outside your doorway in the neighborhood where we grew up. The statistics for escaping this kind of environment are pretty poor. It’s easy to get involved with criminal behavior. Everybody’s doing it, and nobody cares.
In my case, I had no curfews or rules, and I spent a lot of time out on the streets. Sometimes I’d see my own mother out on the same streets—on drugs. There were times I’d run and duck her, pretending I didn’t see her. Other times I’d try to help her, checking to see if she needed anything. Let me tell you, those were some of the lowest moments of my life. It tore me up to see her like that, and I got into a lot of fights with guys who sold her those drugs. They didn’t care it was my mother. That was normal.
But I remember this, too: Before all the drugs and dysfunction, she had been a good mother. We went to church on Sundays and she taught us the Golden Rule. She preached the importance of going to school, getting good grades, and she’d reward us for doing well. Even as I was getting in trouble, I could remember my mother telling me to be the best I could be. It wasn’t advice that she took for herself, though, and it created a tug of war in my head between what I knew I should do and what I saw everyone else do.
Fortunately, I did well in school and I got good grades. I kept my faith in God. I had to. It’s why I’m here. And I finally pushed past all the bad choices I’d made in life with a lot of help from Methodist Home for Children. But it did take a while. The first time I went to a group home, I’d violated parole on a larceny charge. I was 12 years old. I stayed in care for 6-8 months and then went back home to the same old neighborhood and the same old bad habits. I was 15 when I went back again for selling drugs in school.
I learned lessons in those group homes that saved my life. I learned accountability. I learned the value of hard work. I learned how to study. I learned how to trust people.
Until Methodist Home for Children, I’d never met people who sincerely pushed me to be a better person, to do the right thing. The counselors in those group homes would not leave me alone, and I hated it at the time. They’d follow me and follow me and follow me. They’d drill me and drill me. I called it aggravated support. When I think back, I really appreciate their persistence because it taught me this: Nothing will work out if you don’t apply yourself. And I tell kids that all the time now. You can want to help yourself, and people will help you. But no one will help you if you’re not helping yourself. Some of us are born into circumstances that, God willing, you will never experience. But we all have choices, and we have to choose to work for ourselves.
So I did.
I graduated high school and entered college with the help of my social worker and surrogate mother, Barbara Greene. Then Methodist Home for Children stepped up for me again and paid for my college. It truly opened the doors for me. With this help, I went on to earn my bachelor’s degree at NC Central. I worked two years for the Department of Juvenile Justice and then I got my Master of Social Work at NC State, again with funding from Methodist Home.
Today, I’m interviewing for jobs to work with young people who are in the kind of trouble I was in. I’ve told my story to state lawmakers, and I’ve been in Spotlight magazine and on WRAL-TV. When I go back to my old neighborhood in Wilson, people greet me like a role model and a hometown hero. They’ll say: 'I am so proud of you. I don’t know how the hell you did it. But you did it.'
I heard something this summer that really rang true for me. Vic Hackley is a [now former] Methodist Home board member and namesake for the Hackley Education and Learning Program. He was talking to a group of students getting Methodist Home scholarships, and he said this: Our at-birth circumstances tell us only who, what and how we are at that point, but not who we could be. He went on to quote author Ken Kesey: You can count the seeds in an apple, but you can’t count the apples in a seed.
I hope my life and my career in social work will yield many apples. But I’m ready now to say that the story is no longer about me. I am not the story. The story is about the kids who are struggling right now, tonight, with neglect and abuse and all of the despair that comes with it.
Your support for Methodist Home for Children helps change the story for these kids. And, just as important, your support helps these kids change their own story. I thank you for being here tonight and for everything you do to advance the life-changing work of Methodist Home for Children. You are making a difference.