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For three families, Tulsa experiment offers chance to grasp American dream

The Monitor is following three Oklahoma mothers whose families are touched by George Kaiser's philanthropy. Their struggles show the challenges of raising children in trying circumstances and the potential of targeted philanthropy to help parents to break cycles of poverty and neglect. This is Part 2 of a yearlong series.

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Hayzetta Nichols sat with her infant daughter, Loyal, and daughter Myracle during a matinee of 'Incredibles 2' last month in Tulsa, Okla. Ms. Nichols is part of a bold philanthropic initiative to unleash the potential of disadvantaged kids in Tulsa, a city of 400,000 once known as the oil capital of the world.

Ann Hermes/Staff

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It’s 94 degrees F. in the midday sun as Hayzetta Nichols steers her fully loaded baby stroller past a row of broiling cars. Her two other children toddle beside her and Lavelle, her husband, headed for the welcoming chill of a multiplex matinee.

Normally all three kids would be at daycare but it’s closed for staff training. Since it’s also Ms. Nichols’s day off work she has decided to take the family to the opening day of “Incredibles 2.” She plans to nap once everyone settles down in the front-row recliners. But she’ll also pump extra breast milk for Loyal, her three-month-old daughter, just as she does on her daily breaks at the call center.

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For Nichols, multitasking is just another word for making it.

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“How do I do it? I just do it. There’s no in between, there’s no trying. You gotta get out there on that ledge and go for it. That’s part of being a mom,” she says.

Nichols is part of a bold philanthropic initiative to unleash the potential of disadvantaged kids in Tulsa, a city of 400,000 once known as the oil capital of the world. Its richest resident, George Kaiser, has pledged much of his fortune to building a public-private safety net for young families in a state that is largely notable for its absence. His family foundation is focusing on children’s learning from birth until third grade, a multi-year bet on sustained early intervention to deliver scholastic success to the most needy, including black and Latino families.

Oklahoma’s schools were in the spotlight in April when teachers walked out to demand – and got – higher pay and more spending on education in a state that ranks among the least generous. While the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF) has invested in public-school programs and the district’s leadership, its largesse can’t replace core funding of education and other state programs.

The Monitor is following three mothers whose lives are touched by Mr. Kaiser’s philanthropy, from quality daycares and early-reading classes to prison-diversion programs and family planning. Their struggles show the challenges of raising children in trying circumstances and the potential of targeted philanthropy to help parents to break cycles of poverty and neglect.

Above all, the Tulsa Experiment – an experiment in which the participants shape the outcome – is an attempt to restore the American Dream to those perhaps least able to hold onto its promise.

Alexis Stephens attends a Women In Recovery alumni indoor movie with her son, Carson, and daughter, Addison, on June 16, in Tulsa, Okla. Stephens is a graduate of the Women In Recovery program, a prison-diversion program that helps women overcome addiction.
Ann Hermes/Staff

It’s been three months since Alexis Stephens completed Women In Recovery, a Kaiser-funded prison-diversion program, which allowed her to start over after years of addiction and to reunite her with her two children. Today she’s picking up Addison, who was born while Ms. Stephens was incarcerated, from daycare and driving across town to her mother’s house, where Carson, who just finished third grade, is waiting to go to his Cub Scout cookout.

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At a nearby park, men in shorts mill around a grill, while a gaggle of young boys toss a football and dart between playground rides. Carson peels away to join them. “What’s Bubba doing?” Stephens asks Addison. “Is he pushing the boys” on the merry-go-round?

Addison, a toddler enamored of her newfound speed, kicks off her shoes and skips over the grass toward a fishing pond, where a fountain sprays water into the warm evening skies. Stephens, who wears a black sundress, chases after her, leaving her mother, Claudia, sitting on a bench.

Claudia has been a constant in Carson’s quicksand childhood, his legal guardian while Stephens was addicted and homeless; Claudia wrestled him away from his father, who has since been sent to federal prison for drug trafficking. Now, Stephens is sober and has a car and a steady office job. Carson lives with her and Addison in a downtown women’s shelter.

When she was struggling with addiction, Stephens moved frequently with Carson, fearful of Child Protective Services taking him away. They lived in rented apartments, rarely well maintained. “I don’t want that life for my kids. I want stability for them. They deserve that,” she says.

Lindsey House, the women’s shelter, has strict rules for its residents: no messy apartments; a 10 p.m. curfew; savings program in lieu of rent. No men. (She is dating a man she met online, but they have to meet elsewhere.)

“I still have the accountability and structure here that I have to live by,” says Stephens. “I come home every day after work to a clean house because I have to clean my house every day.”

Not long after Stephens finished her 18-month recovery program, she left Carson sleeping on the sofa. It was Saturday morning, and Stephens needed to service the breathalyzer in her car that’s a condition of her holding a license. She figured it would take under an hour, and if Carson woke up, he could find the mom upstairs who babysat for him.

In that hour, the stability that Stephens had worked so hard for nearly fell apart.

When Carson woke from his nap, his mom wasn’t there. He looked out the window and saw a police car parked outside. He walked out the front door, went up to a police officer, and said, “I can’t find my mother.”

By the time Stephens rushed back, after a frantic call from Lindsey House staff who spotted the cop and Carson outside and intervened. The policeman was waiting in the office. He knew her criminal record, her probation rules, Carson’s status.

“I was extremely calm because what I represent has to represent what I am right now,” she says. She listened to the officer, and agreed that it was wrong to leave Carson alone. He said he wouldn’t write her a citation but that the incident would go on her record.

What she feared most – losing her children, going back to jail – didn’t transpire. “It could have gotten bad. It could gotten really bad,” she says.

Now there’s a handwritten list on the fridge of emergency numbers to call. That the incident happened at Lindsey House, where staff could vouch for Stephens is another reason why she’s loath to leave next month. She’s hoping for an extension so she can prepare for the next step, save enough, perhaps, for a down payment on a house with a yard and a bedroom for Carson, who sleeps on a bunk above her bed.

“I’m going to lose a lot when I move out of here,” she says. “If you need creamer in the morning, you’ve got a friend. If you need someone to get your kid off the bus in the morning, you’ve got a friend.”

Mikaleah Moment works her shift cleaning at LIFE Senior Services, a seniors day center on June 14 in Tulsa, Okla.
Ann Hermes/Staff

Trash bin. Spray bottle. Bucket. Latex gloves.


Mikaleah Moment pushes her way into a recreational room where a dozen or so seniors and their caregivers sit at tables bathed in the blue glow of a daytime game show. Some are doing crossword puzzles or reading catalogs. Tulip-shaped paper streamers hang from the ceiling.

Ms. Moment wheels her bucket to the men’s bathroom to start cleaning and mopping. In an hour she’ll be done with work and ready to collect her daughters from Educare, an early-learning center built and funded by GKFF. For now, she considers this job at a seniors day center a find – $11 an hour, no weekends, walking distance from home. (A week later she quit the center to work at a gas station.) “I change jobs like I change my clothes. But I always keeps me a job,” she says.

Her last job, serving food at a Tulsa hospital, was even better, she says, but it ended abruptly after Educare called to say Jo’Nae, her 3-year-old, was waiting to go home. She called the father who was supposed to collect her; he told her he was at the mall. “I told the manager I have no choice but to leave now,” she says, shaking her head at her ex-boyfriend’s behavior. She was fired, and never went back.

For staff at Educare, which serves low-income children who start as early as six weeks, this is familiar terrain. Family units are rarely nuclear. Fathers may be involved or cohabitating, and share some parenting duties, but the primary caregiver is inevitably the mother.

For Moment, that’s been her life since she was 15. Her mother died the previous year, just as Moment was about to become a teen mom herself. R’Myah – whose father is Moment’s current boyfriend, Rande – was born last August. Moment lives with her children at the house of her late grandmother, a retired schoolteacher who pushed Moment to finish high school.

Which is how Moment, now age 18, finds herself the head of her household. There are rules: Clean up after yourself. No visitors after 11 p.m. Proper meals, not junk food.

She’s dismissive of young mothers who can’t cook. “I know how to be a real mom. It’s not just, ‘buy them stuff.’ You got to nurture, learn with them, teach them, work with them,” she says.

After R’Myah was born, Moment began using a long-acting contraceptive, a program supported and funded by GKFF.

She has two younger siblings: a troubled half-sister, 16, who insists that she wants a baby, too – “This is not what you want,” she tells her – and a brother who’s entering his senior year of high school. The last time she saw him, he blurted out that he was going to be a father.

“Congratulations. But I’m going to kill you,” she told him.

Like Stephens, Moment plans to move. She has visited apartments for rent, figuring she can find a tenant for her grandmother’s old house. It holds too many memories, not all warm, and Moment feels the weight of it on her narrow shoulders. Moving is “a fresh start,” she says.

At home, Rande helps with parenting and brings her lunch when he’s not working for his father’s construction business. Ask about Rande’s family, and Moment’s face lights up. “His daddy is the daddy I never had. If I need help doing something he’s right there,” she says.

Rande’s family was also Moment’s introduction to rodeos and horses. The first time she met him he was wearing cowboy boots, fresh from practice. Soon he was taking her to his grandfather’s stable to teach her how to ride, and she bought her own horse, Gojoe, a thoroughbred.

Riding “is like therapy,” she says. “It’s soothing. I could be extremely upset but I go there and start riding that horse and I’m calm and cool.”

Mikaleah Moment rides with her daughter, Jo’Nae, as her boyfriend, Rande, holds their daughter, R’Myah on June 16, in Owasso, Okla. Moment's boyfriend, Rande, owns horses and brought her into the rodeo world.
Ann Hermes/Staff

On a recent Saturday, it was rodeo night in Owasso, 10 miles north of Tulsa. Rande drives a pickup truck and horse trailer, while Moment follows with the girls in her dented gray Camry. The sun is setting behind a hill overlooking a ploughed fenced field flanked by a rusted green bleacher, as scores of riders and horses gathered by the pens. The crowd in the bleachers is a mix of families, black and white, and young and old cowboys; the air is thick with sweat and dung and hay, and a sweet smell of another kind of grass.

Moment, who wears jeans, purple-and-tan cowboy boots, and a colorful zig-zag blouse, hoists herself up onto her saddle. Her turquoise purse swings at her side. Jo’Nae is placed in front, holding the reins.

“You see that pony?” says Moment, pointing to a small girl on horseback. “Maybe I’m going to get you one like that.”

“It’s cute,” says Jo’Nae.

“Yeah. Maybe I’ll get you one.”

“Then I have one horse. 1, 2, 3, 4.”

“We’ll need a bigger trailer,” says Moment.

Hayzetta Nichols passes her infant daughter, Loyal to her partner, partner Lavelle Nichols as they eats lunch with her son Lijah, daughter Myracle before heading to a matinee on June 15, 2018 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Ann Hermes/Staff

Loyal arrived in March, right on time. Since then, Nichols has gone back to work, used her tax credits to buy a used SUV, and has bought new furniture and a washer and dryer for their rented house. Come August, she wants to re-enroll part-time at Tulsa Community College and earn more credits towards a social-work degree.

“Everything is looking up,” she says.

For Lavelle, work has been more fitful. His record – he served prison time for assault – makes it hard to get a job, even when he enrolled in a program, which GKFF funds, that helps former felons to transition into work. He had at least four interviews, but no callbacks. “How is he supposed to get a job without someone at least giving him a chance to try?” sighs Nichols.

His dream job, says Lavelle, a former boxer, is to be a car mechanic, a skill he picked up from his father growing up in Arkansas, one of 10 children.

For now, he’s picking up yard work and other casual jobs. Every month, he has to appear before a judge and pay $40 in probation fees. This month he took Loyal along, scooped her into his arms and walked into the courtroom. “Everyone changed when they saw her,” he says, laughing at how the judge and court officers lightened up at the sight of a smiling baby.

Like her sister, Myracle, 3, and brother, Lijah, 1, Loyal has begun attending Educare. Nichols is thrilled at the progress her children are making – their vocabulary and curiosity and poise – and is glad that Myracle is moving up to preschool, away from Lijah, whom she says is overprotective of his older sister in classroom squabbles. “He’ll just come over there and hit you because he can’t get his words across. That’s why I’ve been working with him” on using his words, she says.

Nichols knows the power of proactive parenting. By the time she turned 13, she had cycled through 28 foster homes and been expelled from school for fighting; her judge called her “a hellbound child” who required 24-hour supervision. The foster parent who turned her life around was a single mother, a social worker who was taking college classes.

“She knew she had a challenge ahead, and I guess that’s what she signed up for,” she says.

Nichols says her “mom,” as she calls her, was patient and firm. Under her protective wing, Nichols put her angry fists down and graduated top of her high school class in Morris, Okla. (She also reconciled with her birth mother, who lives in southern Oklahoma.)

“Knowing that I had such a strong woman providing for me I knew that I could do the same thing when the time came,” she says.

Back at the cinema, the family has settled in for the movie. Lavelle hands Loyal over to her mother, who is helping Myracle to refill her lemonade. Blankets from home are passed out. Lijah climbs over for a cuddle, then nods off. Nichols gently lays him back on his oversized recliner.

On the screen, Edna Mode, the fashion designer, is dispensing advice to Mr. Incredible, whose three kids are proving a handful. She tells him: “Done properly, parenting is a heroic act.”

Part 1: Tulsa experiment: Can investing in children early reverse poverty cycle?