STREETERVILLE — Marcy Goldberg believes in fate.
And she knows she was destined to meet Jeremiah Smith 11 years ago, when he was a 6-year-old living in the Cabrini-Green housing projects struggling to learn as a first-grader at Manierre Elementary School. She became the boy's tutor, and then, as time marched on, so much more.
Goldberg is now an unofficial grandmother for Smith — a senior at Ogden International School of Chicago and one of the state's top boys basketball point-producers — plus many of his siblings, who frequently stay at her Streeterville condominium when they're not at home with family in West Garfield Park.
Destiny, she said, played its hand.
"If somebody told me this would be my life ...," she said. "But I wake up each morning, and I just think I am blessed."
A Meeting By Chance
Goldberg and Jeremiah never should have met in 2002.
Goldberg, 68, had experienced life's inequalities growing up in Detroit, watching that city's poverty tear it apart when she was a child. She saw the same types of things happening when she moved to the Chicago area to get an undergraduate degree in education from Northwestern University.
She taught for only one year — civics and history at New Trier High School in 1967 — but it left a profound impression on her. She loved influencing young minds, and fondly remembers how she made her students that year volunteer for a political campaign and discuss their experiences in class.
Well after Goldberg had received a master's degree from DePaul University, started her own wealth management business and had moved to Streeterville with her now-ex-husband and daughter, Rachel, she received a letter from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. The mass mailing asked if she would like to tutor a child from an impoverished family for one hour a week.
"I had missed teaching, so I thought, why not?" she said.
Goldberg arrived at Manierre, next to Cabrini-Green, and was placed with a first-grade girl to tutor. But the girl said she already had a tutor, leaving Goldberg without a pupil.
"So I asked the organizer if there was anyone else I could help, and there was a boy in the back of the classroom hiding with his head down," Goldberg said.
That boy was Jeremiah, who was notoriously shy and lived on the 12th floor of a Cabrini-Green high-rise.
"The first couple of weeks, I wanted to pull up his hair so I could see his face," Goldberg said. "But I knew he had a lot of potential. I asked him, if he could go anywhere in the world, where would he want to go, and he said 'My grandmother's house.' I remember being so touched by that."
By the end of the year, Jeremiah warmed up, and Goldberg met his parents, Dena Hicks and Otis Smith. But teachers told Goldberg that Jeremiah was well behind in his reading overall, and they were threatening to flunk him.
So Goldberg upped her tutoring from once a week to once a day. She went to Cabrini-Green daily, bringing candy for Jeremiah and his four siblings, walking her 5-foot frame up double-digit flights of stairs to reach the family's apartment.
The exception was Fridays, when Goldberg, who is Orthodox Jewish, couldn't drive due to the Sabbath.
Jeremiah wasn't progressing as fast as Goldberg liked, so she asked Hicks if Jeremiah could stay with her in Streeterville on Friday nights.
"He has spent almost every Friday night since then with me," Goldberg said.
Spending for a Higher Cause
Jeremiah's dwellings sit about 6½ miles away from Goldberg's, but they're worlds apart in many ways. To reach Goldberg's home, he rides the No. 66 bus, which is nearly a straight shot on Chicago Avenue to and from West Garfield Park and Streeterville.
"When I take the bus here, I know I'm going to a good place where I don't have to worry about anything," said Jeremiah, 17. "And taking the bus [west] at night, it's like I have to watch my back. When you go that way, it's a whole different land."
Jeremiah hasn't been the only one in his family to live with Goldberg. At one point, all of his four siblings have stayed in the 1,550-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium.
The condo looks as if it was last furnished in the 1980s. Goldberg's family room TV is at least 30 years old. She drives a Toyota Corolla.
"Believe me, I'm broke from the kids," Goldberg said. "I have no money to spend on luxuries."
Instead, as the Smiths became a bigger part of her life, she pumped more of her money into their education. Goldberg said she spent nearly $80,000 at Sylvan Learning Center to help Jeremiah, his older brother, Darius, and younger sister Angel. When the Smiths were moving from Cabrini-Green to the South Side before Jeremiah started fifth grade, Goldberg said she rented an apartment in Hyde Park so they could have a mailing address to qualify to attend Powell Elementary, which was a higher-rated school than other options.
"I'm very thankful, because if it wasn't for her, I probably would have dropped out of school," said Jeremiah, who calls Goldberg "grandma."
When Goldberg made yearly visits to see Rachel in Israel — where she moved and teaches Jewish and Zionist history to Americans studying abroad in Jerusalem — Goldberg made sure her friends and neighbors tutored the Smiths.
"Marcy is a very special person, knowing the entire Smith family as I do, they certainly battle all the social and economic ills," said Jeff Aeder, a longtime friend of Goldberg who has helped several of the Smiths find jobs. "I believe that they do truly want to make a better life for themselves and that Marcy has made a profound difference in their lives."
Her generosity has extended to the next generation. Goldberg is an official guardian for one of Darius' children, Sha'La, 5. She pays for her to attend Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Hyde Park, and Sha'La lives with her most of the week.
"I love them as if they were my own, and they mean everything to me," Goldberg said of the Smith children. "I'm getting to be the full-time mom that I never used to be. It's a crazy life, and I don't have time to play bridge.
"I don't mind the craziness because I never got to really be a full-time mom with Rachel. When Rachel was a child, I worked 15 hours a day. I'd come home at 2 in the morning, and we'd talk for an hour; otherwise we'd never talk. I thought I'd have more kids, but this is the way it worked out. It's like 'The Blind Side' times three."
Otis Smith said Goldberg is a "good person with a big heart."
He said that Jeremiah's family is extremely caring and supportive, but Goldberg's assistance with his children's schooling has been crucial.
"Some people wouldn't do what she did," said Otis Smith, a Lincoln Park High School graduate. "She's like a grandmother — a very caring person. She helped my kids."
The Smiths also have learned about Goldberg's faith along the way. Jeremiah knows many of the Jewish prayers; his favorite is the blessing over wine. He likes Friday nights because "after dark, you can just relax, no phones, and you can't work."
Angel, 16, a junior at Innovations High School Downtown, helps cook and serve chicken schnitzel (her favorite dish), chicken paprikash, brisket and matzo balls during Shabbat. Goldberg expects Sha'La, who recently received three Lalaloopsy dolls and a mini menorah for Hanukkah, to have a Bat Mitzvah. She recently made a pair of a paper dreidels that hang from a chandelier over Goldberg's dining room table.
"Sha'La is here almost all the time," Goldberg said. "I have this adorable little girl who makes me laugh every day."
'A Story Long From Written'
Goldberg's goal is simply to give the Smiths, especially Jeremiah, Angel and Sha'La, a better life. Jeremiah would be the first of his siblings to attend college.
He wants to major in education, either at Northern Illinois University or Western Illinois University. He'd like to become a gym teacher and assistant basketball coach at his West Town high school, where he's averaging about 31 points per game this season.
If he continues that scoring pace, which was aided by a 45-point outburst in the season opener against Air Force Academy High School, Jeremiah would rank among the IHSA's all-time single-season performers. First-year head coach Adam Hoover said Jeremiah is such a prolific scorer that he doesn't want him expending too much energy on defense.
"Our goal is just to get him open because we know he'll finish," said Hoover, of Bucktown, whose team is 0-7 despite Jeremiah's talent.
Hoover said Jeremiah, a 5-foot-10-inch forward and one of the team's three captains, is a respectful person who's "never had any problems." Asked what will happen five years from now, Hoover said he hopes Jeremiah is a college graduate with a teaching position on his coaching staff.
But, as Aeder said, the "story of the Smith children is long from written."
"Jeremiah is a great kid with huge heart, but he will still have to find his path," said Aeder, of Lakeview. "While I believe Marcy has given them a lot of love and guidance, it is a monumental task to get kids from such disadvantaged backgrounds to be able to break the cycle."
Goldberg said she worries every time the Smiths venture to West Garfield Park. She said their current neighborhood is a hotbed for drug dealers.
"It's been really hard when they go home. The place they are now, they literally sell drugs where they live," she said. "They were fine in Cabrini-Green, they were fine on the South Side. They live in a place now that’s terrifying."
Eventually, Goldberg would like to join Rachel, her son-in-law and three grandchildren in Israel.
But she knows that day is years from now. First, she wants to put Jeremiah, Angel and Sha'La through school and watch them receive their college diplomas.
Like any proud grandma would.