by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The last time I saw the mother she was hiding on a couch, her head wrapped in a bandana, her eyes as narrow as coin slots. She was coming off a crack cocaine high, in a burned-out house in Detroit’s northwest side, with a hole in the roof, no heat, one working light bulb, floors covered in dirt. This was home to Dorothy Chatman and her teenage son, Deshawn.

“Have you ever seen your son play basketball?” I asked her that day.

“Basketball is what he’s into now,” she sniffed. “Next year …it’ll be something else.”

Deshawn had quit the team to protect against junkies and dealers who preyed on his mother. He stood guard on his porch, every afternoon, as noble a figure as these streets had ever seen. But anyone watching the strung-out woman on the couch would have gently told him, forget it, kid, you’re on your own.

That was one year ago today. Now I stand in the Cooley High School gymnasium office, and the door opens and in walks a beaming Deshawn, 16, who is back as a starting guard on the team.

And behind him, wearing a purple winter coat, is his mother.

The new apartment

This is a story about human kindness, and the wonders it can do. Cooley’s coach, Ben Kelso, had told me about Deshawn. I came down and wrote a column. People read it and were moved. So moved, they sent money — without solicitation — and soon there was enough to get Deshawn and his mother out of the rat hole that had been home for seven years.

“What did you take with you?” I ask Dorothy Chatman.

“Nothing,” she says.

The new apartment was hardly fancy, but it was clean and relatively safe. The electricity worked, and best of all, in the dead of winter, there was heat. Deshawn, who didn’t even own a blanket, had been sleeping under old jackets to keep warm.

“Now I can have friends over,” he says.

His mother smiles. “I couldn’t believe this was going to be our home.”

I study her face. She looks 20 years younger than the puffy, drugged-out person she was. She is clean. She has been for months. She doesn’t see the dealers or the junkies. They don’t know where she lives. Moving, she says, made the difference.

“Where would you be if you hadn’t gotten out?” I ask.

“I believe,” she says, shrugging, “we’d be in the street.”

Instead, because somebody cared about her, she began to care back. She stopped sleeping all day. She took her medication. She kept the apartment clean, because it looked nice clean.

One afternoon, not long ago, she put on her coat and walked to Cooley. She entered the gym during basketball practice.

“When I saw her I was like, ‘Dang, what’s she doing here?’ ” Deshawn says. When he realized it wasn’t due to trouble, his emotions changed. “I got excited.”

I ask Dorothy why she came that day.

“I was missing Deshawn,” she says. “I wanted to see him.”

This from a woman who a year ago didn’t know if her son was in the house.

Life off the street

So much of life leaves us feeling powerless. The problems of this world seem too large for individuals. So we sigh and shake our heads and tend to our own gardens.

Deshawn and Dorothy Chatman are living proof of what happens when you share some seeds and water. The mother admits she was doing drugs because “I wasn’t happy. I was just looking for something, you know, some way out.”

Instead, through the kindness of strangers, she was offered another way out, one with lights and electricity and heat that came from vents instead of from the four-burner stove that she used to keep lit. Her son, inspired by the kindness, has turned his back on the drugs and gangs that poison his peers. He got a job at a car wash. He contributes while his mother searches for work. He keeps thinking back to the day he first saw the new apartment.

“I couldn’t believe people would do this for me and my mama,” he says.

“Bless their hearts,” Dorothy says.

“Thank you,” Deshawn adds, “it’s a lot better than living in the dark all the time.”

There are so many sad stories. They all need to be told. But once in a while, a good light is shined by strangers. And what you see, blinking back, is the look of hope and gratitude. Deshawn is right. It’s a lot better than living in the dark.

To help, send checks to The Youth Fund c/o Free Press Sports Dept., 321 W. Lafayette, Detroit 48226. Albom will sign “Tuesdays With Morrie” 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Barnes & Noble on Orchard Lake, West Bloomfield. Reach him at 1-313-223-4581.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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