Melvin Jones and Jennifer Annable were worlds apart in 2004, a collision of different cultures and personalities. Six years later the Portland State University basketball star is about to earn his college diploma, thanks to the woman who refused to give up on him.
She knew they were becoming a family when he put his groceries in the cupboard.
For months, Jennifer Annable watched Melvin Jones protect his food as if he were still a teenaged nomad. He kept his cereal, fruit snacks and caramel rice cakes on shelves in his bedroom for easier guarding. He also took the doors off the closet to ensure he could see his clothes as he lay in bed. He neatly arranged his hats and shoes around the room in plain sight. This comforted Jones, being surrounded by his stuff, knowing no one could mess with it anymore.
Annable grinned at the cupboard gesture. Trust was developing, slowly. The boy wasn’t the easiest kid, but there was something about him that was worth the trouble. She took him in not just because her own son asked her to, not just because Jones had no home, but because she had the capacity to love another child. Annable (pronounced “anna-BELL”) always wanted more kids. Never happened — work, fate, everything intruded.
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Now her son, Kasey Poirrier, a basketball coach, had invited this challenge into their home: a sullen, 16-year-old African American who had drifted from school to school, house to house, block to block. Jones was an incredible athlete, especially gifted in the sports of basketball and track, but as a sophomore with zero high-school credits, his talent seemed a waste. Life had taught him only to speak with his fists, steal what he wanted and trust few.
“Hi, Melvin,” Annable would often greet him as he entered a room.
No reply. No eye contact.
She spent many nights in her bedroom, crying.
What am I doing wrong? Does he even like me, or am I just a place to stay? How are we going to be a real family if he won’t even communicate with me?
This was 2004. Six years later, they are a real, if unconventional, family. And Jones is seven months from his ultimate personal victory: college graduation.
A 61-year-old extrovert from New Hampshire and a 23-year-old introvert from the Holly Park housing projects are unexpected mother and son. They sat at the dinner table this past summer and laughed over how far they’ve come.
Most families share blood and love unconditionally. Some just bleed and find love as they bandage their wounds.
Your story is just like “The Blind Side,” I tell Annable. Maybe better.
“I really didn’t like that movie,” she says.
I’m confused. The heartwarming Disney account of the Michael Lewis book chronicled Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher’s rise from homelessness to the NFL. An under privileged, over sized black teen did so with the help of a rich white family. The tale has inspired millions. Inspiration is good, right?
“The movie was too syrupy,” Annable says. “It was too perfect. I haven’t read the book, but I know it wasn’t like that in real life. I know it had to be a lot harder, a lot uglier. “She shakes her head. “Trust me, I know,” she continues. “I remember.”
Melvin Jones walked into study hall at Chief Sealth High School in the fall of 2003 wearing his headphones.
“Here’s that kid I was telling you about,” one coach told Poirrier.
Poirrier, the junior-varsity basketball coach at Chief Sealth, walked toward Jones and snatched the headphones off his head. Jones glared at him. Poirrier asked the kid to read a book. Jones refused. Poirrier ripped open his backpack, grabbed a book, slammed it on the table.
“Now you can stay,” he said.
Later that day, during an open gym, the coach marveled at Jones. That angry, defiant kid dominated the first five games. The sophomore was taking it to the seniors. Afterward, Poirrier attempted a real conversation. Jones gave one-word answers to every question.
Was he worth it? Many coaches had wondered the same and concluded no. Despite his sports talent, the ultra-quick 5-foot-10 Jones had already failed at two high schools, Cleveland and Rainier Beach. Colin Slingsby, the Chief Sealth head coach, wanted to pass, too.
But Poirrier pleaded with Slingsby, “Let me keep one kid that you don’t want. I’ll take Melvin. He’s my responsibility.”
Poirrier, who was 23 at the time, drove Jones home often after practices. It didn’t take long for him to realize the kid had no home. He dropped Jones off at his grandma’s house or his sister’s or his aunts’ or a friend’s. Jones couldn’t stay with his mother anymore; he had been kicked out of the Holly Park projects.
“Do you know how bad you have to be for them to do that?” Jones asks. “Yeah, I was that bad.”
During those drives, Poirrier encouraged Jones to improve his grades and attitude because he had the talent to play college ball. “I’d like to do that,” Jones said often, but both of them knew it was an impossible feat.
“Get to school on time tomorrow,” Poirrier said one night as Jones exited the car.
“I’m sleeping on the floor of my sister’s house,” Jones replied. “I don’t have an alarm clock. I’ve got to commute from Skyway to West Seattle. I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”
Poirrier drove home, silent, disheartened.
Mary Jones was an outgoing, funny woman who loved her children deeply. In the beginning, she gave them structure.
But then she began staying in her room most of the time, leaving daughter Lasheka Bousley to take care of the younger kids, including Melvin. Then Mary Jones would disappear for long periods of time. She was addicted to drugs.
And on Feb. 8, 2004, she died. She was 45.
“I hate talking about it,” Melvin says six years later.
Ask how she died, and Melvin reluctantly gives the four-letter answer — AIDS. He didn’t even know she had the disease until after she passed.
“She was a really good woman,” Bousley, 28, says. “The addiction switched her up. We were more so out on our own, with me playing the mom figure. I wasn’t ready for that.”
In late February 2004, Melvin moved in with Annable and Poirrier. His family hated it. Didn’t they know Melvin already had a family?
The fight would last for months, until Melvin’s absentee father, Clarence Scott, signed a legal agreement that made Annable the boy’s guardian.
This is what Melvin wanted, but he still didn’t trust Annable.
Annable explained the rules. You have a curfew now, 9:30 on weeknights, 1 a.m. on weekends. You must eat at the dinner table with the family. You must go to family events. Always do your homework. Always go to school.
Soon, she would establish relationships with all of Melvin’s teachers and counselors at Chief Sealth and ask for frequent progress reports. Soon, she would let Melvin’s best friend, Anthony Kidd, move into her three-bedroom house, too, because he craved the stability. (Kidd still lives with her to this day.)
Melvin would not fail. Annable’s kids don’t fail. Melvin argued with her, almost daily, but he obeyed. He liked that someone challenged him. She gave him the PIN to her ATM card and trusted he wouldn’t steal from her. She kept a consistent message: If we’re living like a family, let’s be a complete family. But Melvin wasn’t ready to consider Annable a second mother.
“It was hard because, after my mom passed away, in my mind, Jennifer was someone else trying to be my mother,” Melvin said. “I couldn’t handle that. Not at all.”
Jennifer Annable is the daughter of a father who grew up in Massachusetts foster care and a mother who grew up in an orphanage in England. Their stories touched her at an early age. As a child, she dreamed of running an orphanage to help children like her mom.
In 1980, Annable moved from New Hampshire to Seattle because there were better construction jobs for her husband here. She was five months pregnant with their son, Kasey. They came to the Northwest with only $50 and pawned almost everything they owned to rent a room.
Annable worked at a group home for violent and disturbed adolescents for four years. Then she spent 25 years at the University of Washington’s Experimental Education Unit, rising to principal and then director of the school for children with autism and other special needs. She recently left that job to become the executive director of the Academy of Precision Learning, a 42-student school located in the University Heights Center that provides personalized education to kids from kindergarten through middle school, many of whom have special needs.
Annable and her husband also took in five foster children throughout Kasey’s childhood.
“I poured my heart and soul into my job and into my own kid,” Annable says.
That commitment contributed to her marriage failing. Shortly after Annable turned 50, her husband left her for a younger woman. They divorced but remain good friends. Annable says she was too busy to cultivate a healthy marriage. But does she regret making work her priority?
“No,” she says. “I suppose I should say I do, but I don’t.”
Annable’s friends had hoped she would use this part of her life to relax, maybe travel a little or move into a condo. Meet a new man. Instead, she dared to love Melvin as a son. Her friends were skeptical.
“Some people thought, ‘Is she crazy? Is this just a phase?’ ” said Judy Sidell, who knows Annable as well as anyone. “When I realized this was life, I knew she’d need her friends to help her.”
Sidell organized a “Welcome to the family” shower about three months after Melvin moved into Annable’s house. Forty or so people, mostly women, brought gifts and prepared to meet Annable’s unexpected new son. But Melvin refused to get out of the car.
For all the house-hopping he’d done, this was one place he didn’t want to visit. For all the harrowing lows of his young life, this was one thing he feared.
Looking back, he still doesn’t know why he reacted that way. Maybe the event was too soon. Maybe he despised that all these well-intentioned people, who couldn’t possibly relate to a 16-year-old black kid from the streets, were about to play nice with him. Maybe he knew that, once he met Annable’s friends, his new life would be real and inescapable.
After 30 minutes, Jones exited the car, walked into the house and stood silent, eyes focusing on anything but those people. The friends welcomed him and handed him presents anyway.
No one could tell, but Jones was touched. He changed gradually after that.
Kasey once said of Melvin, “Growing up, he didn’t have the opportunity to be a nice kid.” He received that opportunity when he moved to West Seattle.
Today, he thinks every day about his transformation. It took him an extra year, but he went from a sophomore with zero credits to graduating from Chief Sealth in 2007. He went to North Idaho Community College in Coeur d’Alene to play basketball and graduated. He received a basketball scholarship at Portland State and is on schedule to graduate in June with a bachelor’s degree in child and family studies. He wants to be a social worker.
“I always talk to my friends about my life now,” Melvin says. “If this didn’t happen, if they didn’t take me in, what would I be doing right now? I don’t have the answer. I bet you I wouldn’t have a diploma.”
Melvin and his best friend, Anthony Kidd, gave Jennifer a dog tag several Christmases ago with a picture of themselves on the front and the words “We will always be loved” on the back.
Melvin picks out the most sentimental holiday cards for Jennifer. He used to write phrases such as “you’re like a mother to me” inside them. Now, he has no reservations about considering her a mom. Even his sisters, Lasheka Bousley and Marika Jones, call her “godmom.”
Jennifer helped save Melvin’s life. And Melvin enriched hers.
“When people say blood is thicker than water, it’s not necessarily true,” says Kidd, who calls Melvin his brother. “Your family, even though they love you, can guide you in the wrong direction. But you’re not just born into a life you can’t control. If you make the right choices and surround yourself with the right people, you can do anything. And those people are family, too. So family is as simple or as complicated as you want it to be.”
Tatum Poirrier, 3, asked her parents about marriage recently. Why do people get married?
Her father, Kasey, said it’s about making a commitment to someone special. Her mother, Jessica, said it’s what people do when they love each other and want to stay together forever.
“I want to get married someday, “Tatum told her parents. They laughed. Who are you going to marry, Tatum? Who do you love that much? “Uncle Melvin,” she declared.
They’re celebrating Melvin’s 23rd birthday. Most of the family is there — Jennifer, Kasey, Jessica, Tatum and Lasheka. They watch Melvin score 23 points — “I dropped 23 for my 23rd!” Melvin says happily — in Portland State’s season-opening victory over Pepperdine. The party moves to Buffalo Wild Wings in downtown Portland.
Jennifer brings out a birthday cake, which includes an image of a basketball player. She laughs and tells everyone that, when she first requested a ballplayer on the icing, the baker drew a white person.
“I was like, ‘Um, that’s not going to work,’ ” Jennifer says.
But the most meaningful moment of the night comes when Melvin opens her birthday card. He reads it and recalls a playful old exchange between them.
Jennifer always includes the same remark on her cards to Melvin: “I love you so much, and I’m so proud of you.”
“Why do you always have to say that?” Melvin used to ask.
“You need to hear it,” Jennifer replied. “You can never say it too much.”
After he reads the words once again on this night, Melvin looks up, grins and says, “I’ve got to give you a hug. I could’ve told you that was exactly what you’d write.”
They stood and embraced, unexpected son and unexpected mother, surrounded by family.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer