CHICAGO — Ebony Isaac's dream home has five rooms, two floors and a large closet for a collection of Air Jordan shoes.
It's the home Isaac would one day like to purchase, where the 21-year-old can live with her three younger brothers, Jamaael, 19, Jamie, 16, and Cody, 6.
It also represents the ultimate satisfaction of overcoming the obstacles Isaac has dealt with since she entered the foster care system just short of her ninth birthday.
Until she escaped Chicago's inner city for her current apartment residence at Northern Illinois University — where she's a senior Kinesiology major and Black Studies minor — Isaac had lived in eight foster homes. She almost never had her own dresser, instead keeping her ready-to-move clothes in a suitcase.
While she watched friends and family disappear into life on the streets, Isaac stayed focused with a singular goal in mind: graduate college, something less than three percent of foster children nationally are able to accomplish, according to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. Isaac, a senior, can't wait to hear her name on graduation day.
Ebony Isaac with her youngest sibling, 6-year-old Cody. Isaac, who has spent most of her life in foster care, wants to graduate from college and buy a house to reunite her siblings.
"My motivation is my brothers," said Isaac, who has lived in Englewood, Bronzeville, Roseland and a host of other South Side neighborhoods. "My little brothers are my heart, my life. They're what makes me go. They're watching me, and they're not here with me, which hurts, but I want my brothers to look up to me and say 'she did it. If she can get a degree, I can get a degree.' I'm going to be so excited when I graduate. I like beating the odds."
Isaac's mother never raised her. She has been in and out of prison and addicted to drugs. In her early years, Isaac lived with her grandmother. She said she was removed from the home by state officials due to horrific abuse. Officials at Family Centered Services Children's Home + Aid said they could not comment on Isaac's circumstances due to privacy issues, other than "she and her family were removed from the home due to the horrific things that were happening in her home," but Isaac said her grandmother "essentially beat the crap out of me and undernourished us."
Isaac said she's never let her traumatic childhood bring her down and instead used it as motivation. When she was a senior at Bronzeville's Charles Houston Alternative High School, which had a large contingent of foster students, she met Patricia Easley, who would serve as her mentor as part of the Youth Scholars, Skills, Service mentoring program. Easley, an Austin native and Whitney Young graduate who next month is leaving for Senegal to teach high school English, said Isaac was determined to go to college, to the point where she would stay on top of her teachers and principal to make sure proper scholarship paperwork had been filled out and sent.
"She always figured things out because if she didn't, it wouldn't get done," said Easley, of West Garfield Park. "She always wanted more for herself. She's one of the most driven people I've ever met in my life."
Isaac has earned scholarships that have paid for tuition, room and board, and she also has loans. When she arrived in DeKalb, it was like landing on the moon. When winter break came, as most college students headed back to their family homes, Isaac had nowhere to go. And she hadn't obtained a driver's license — and still hasn't — so she had no method of mobility other than relying on the friends she made at school or public transportation.
"People had this luxury to go home to mom when things get bad, but I don't have that luxury and I have to buckle down to do what I have to do," Isaac said.
For her, that meant getting two jobs in DeKalb. One is filling Nestle candybars like Butterfinger into giant brown boxes at a DeKalb factory. The other is serving drinks to and making small talk with video slot players at the Penny's Place chain.
"Everything is about trying to make a buck," she said.
The work will pay off, Isaac said, when she has that home with her brothers.
Jamie Turner, who has lived in four foster homes and has been in the system since he was 3 years old, said he can't wait either. He described Ebony as "the perfect big sister."
"She's an excellent role model," said Turner, who resides in suburban Chicago Heights and attends Bloom Alternative High School. "And she makes sure I'm doing my life the way I'm supposed to."
Isaac said she won't give up on Jamaael Lawson, who is serving a nine-year sentence for armed robbery at a medium security prison in Downstate Pinckneyville. Isaac said he told her that she's the only person who tries to keep in touch with him.
"Just because everyone else has given up on him, I won't," Isaac said. "That's the worst thing I could do."
She has an especially soft spot for Cody, whom she learned existed through foster care agencies. She'd eventually like to adopt him.
"They told me that they found a little brother and he had been through trauma," Isaac said. "Since I first met him, I just love him. He's always going to be my man. I don't want him to go through any of the things I went through. He doesn't deserve this."
She believes Cody and her other brothers deserve a big house. Isaac quests to start an outreach program in a city — Chicago or elsewhere — arming kids with basketballs and boxing gloves instead of guns and drugs. After Isaac graduates from NIU in 2017, she wants the business to grow large enough where she can purchase the home, complete with a closet that can hold a giant collection of Jordan footwear. She's been fascinated with the shoes since arriving at NIU.
"When I was in Chicago, I never had time to focus on shoes or clothes," she said. "When I came to college, I got to see how other people got to live."
Isaac said her life is a "daily miracle." And, she said, she's only getting started.
"Every day, I thank God I'm alive and I'm just here," Isaac said. "It could have been a lot worse. Most people told me I was going to be nothing. Nothing puts a bigger smile on my face than proving them wrong."
Ebony Isaac with her brother, Jamie. Isaac, who has spent most of her life in foster care, wants to graduate from college and buy a house to reunite her family. Jamie, 16, who has been in foster care since he was 3 years old, said he has the best older sister anyone could ask for.
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