THE PARENT: Bray DeLoach, 44, of Northern Liberties
THE KIDS: Sadiq, 26; Smiles, 21; Samantha, 20; Kenneth, 18; Kweli, 14, and Sidier, 12, adopted July 17, 2019
HOW SHE NAMED THAT SECOND BABY: “When she was born, I wanted something special. Not ‘Miracle’ or ‘Precious.’ I thought: I’m going with ‘Smiles.’”
At 16, Bray had a 3-year-old in tow. The child was her boyfriend’s niece, and Bray took her everywhere: when she hung out with friends, when she went to work at the Rainbow Shop on Chestnut Street. “She would sit right underneath the counter. She’d say, ‘I want to go with Ray-Ray.’”
Bray frequently babysat for younger siblings and cousins. Once, she saw two elementary-aged kids sitting at a table, wearing the crisp uniforms of a Catholic school. She felt a jolt of certainty: “That’s what I’m going to have: two kids, a boy and a girl.”
But there were more children in her vision of the future: a passel of godchildren and neighbor children and foster children like the ones who filled her grandmother’s home. Bray’s own mother and aunt were raised in foster care after their mother died, and it was her aunt’s foster mom who became Bray’s role model. “I said, ‘Grandma, I’m going to be just like you. I’m going to have all these kids in my house.’”
At 19, she had her first: Sadiq, named for his father, the boy who was Bray’s childhood sweetheart and whom she thought she might marry. The baby, she says, “was no mistake, no accident. We planned it. I said, ‘I want a baby.’ But we didn’t work it all the way out — that a baby cost money.
“I did have plans to be married, but in his mind, he was still a kid. As life went on, we started growing up, and I think I grew up a little faster than him.”
Bray was nine months pregnant when a neighbor playfully dared her: “I bet you can’t race down that street.” Bray shot back, “I bet I can.” She did —and her water immediately broke. “When I got to the hospital and got on the table, that’s when I started realizing labor was not a joke. It hurts!”
An epidural softened the pain of contractions, and help from friends and family eased the path of single parenthood, even after Smiles, her daughter, was born five years later. “Learning to drive a car was hard,” Bray says, “but being a mom, that just came naturally.”
She worked as a licensed practical nurse in a nursing home. She kept herself, and the kids, on a tight schedule: “Day care, school, go to work, come back, feed them. I like everything in order. I’ve always been structured.”
And her doors remained open: to several godchildren, to her kids’ classmates and — after an eight-week training program, background checks and home visits — to foster children, including some with mental health and behavioral difficulties.
One day her case worker called: “I want you to meet these two kids. I think you would be good with them.” Bray felt wary of the brother/sister pair, who were 9 and 12 at the time; she’d hoped to care for younger foster children.
But when the two visited her home, Samantha — a seventh-grader as tall as Bray, with facial piercings and tattoos — said, ‘If you let us stay, I’ll do anything for you. I’ll call you Mom. I’ll be a good girl.’” She even offered to take out her tongue piercing.
“I said, ‘OK, daughter,’” Bray remembers, and Kenny said, “You’ve got two for one!” Though Bray has permanent legal custody now, both Samantha and Kenny have a relationship with their biological mother — “my babies’ mama,” Bray says. “It was a treasure having her children.”
At first, they called her “Ms. Ray.” Later, they began calling her “Madre,” the word for “mother” in Spanish. It stuck; Bray is now “Madre” to her kids’ school principals, neighbors, and friends.
About five years ago, a case worker called about another sibling pair, two boys this time, who had been treated for mental health issues and had been in foster care since they were toddlers. “The day they came to the house, Smiles, Samantha, Kenny, and I went outside to wait for them. They got out of the car and came running up to us so fast, giving us hugs.”
The boys, Kweli and Sidier, were always moving, jumping, running. Bray anchored them with basic directives. Less sugar. More structure. Every child had to make his or her bed in the morning; the family ate dinner together — always a meat, a starch, and a vegetable. They did housework as a group.
“I give my kids only a few rules: Go to school. Get good grades. If you mess up, you have to make it right.” She watched them develop bonds with one another: Smiles encouraged Samantha to try out for cheerleading; in turn, Sam showed Smiles how to apply makeup. Kenny relished being a big brother to Kweli and Sidier.
“My kids had to stick together. After school, the big ones had to meet up with the younger ones, then call me and let me know where they were.”
Bray has learned from all her kids. Kenny, an astrology buff, taught her to pay attention to the phases of the moon. Kweli and Sidier love words and frequently send Bray to the dictionary in search of new vocabulary. “I had to start this game — word of the day — and I remember when I gave them ‘whimsical.’ They teach me all the time.
“I do hear people say, ‘I couldn’t do what you do,’” she says. What motivates her — besides a granite-solid conviction that “I’m here as one of God’s people” — is the memory of herself at 16. She was floundering in her own home — Bray’s mom was grieving the death of her husband — and lived for a while with her boyfriend’s family.
“Someone did that for me when I needed the help,” she says. “I always knew I was destined for something different — that I was going to have all these people around.”