For Preston, humor is the key to facing life’s challenges. His story is different from many of his colleagues because he grew up surrounded by a large and loving family and found success as he went out into the world. Still, he met with difficulties that left him homeless and feeling helpless. So, he brings his own shelter experience to the work he does every day at 2100. He shares his story to give hope to the clients he serves, sprinkling wisdom and humor along the way.
The Good Fortune of Family
Grew up in Mississippi, 13 in one house. Me, my brothers, my cousins, my aunts, my uncles, my grandmother. Everyone in the house worked. My grandmother babysat and took care of the house. I was the second youngest in the house. The boys understood work at an early age.
Grandmother gave all the boys chores: cut and stack wood, go out in garden, plant a garden. How to survive on the land; 8, 9 years old I was doing that. My mother and my aunt, they worked a lot of hours at the manufacturing plant.
How I got to Ohio was my mom and my aunts. They had jobs at Ford, so my mom and aunts moved to Ohio and left the kids down South. My grandmother had to do all the raising while my mom and aunts go out trying to make a better life for their kids.
My dad was deceased. I never knew my father. I was raised by mother, my uncles, but for the most part by my grandmother. I never knew what a father was. I came to Ohio in 3rd grade, and I stayed a year with my brothers and sisters and my cousins. I didn’t like it, so my grandmother came to Ohio and took us back down South. I came back up here in 5th grade and I ended up making friends. My mother raised 6 kids by herself while she worked at Ford. We already knew how to do chores, so all the kids had responsibilities in the house until the age we started working. In high school, I started to do summer jobs. My mother taught me how to save, she taught me how to do checking, taught her boys how to invest. My mother was the mother and the father.
Mama Taught Me Everything
I was a mother’s boy. I stayed up under my mama in the kitchen all the time. I wanted to learn how to cook and wash, the basic chores. I learned how to bake and cook in 7th grade, which I thought was cool. I ended up meeting a young lady in my junior year. She got pregnant, and we ended up having a daughter. I went off to college with a track scholarship at Alcorn University in Mississippi.
I did college good. Ended up going to the Olympic trials in ’96 in Atlanta. I had an opportunity to go overseas and run. But I missed 4 years of my daughter’s life going to college. I didn’t want to pursue my track career. I wanted to raise my daughter. One thing I didn’t want to do is be like my father. I wanted my daughter to know who her father was. As a man, I wanted to raise our kids together, not apart. We got married when I was 25, in 1995.
Daughter’s name is Tiana. Raised my daughter, and 4 years later we had a son, Miles. I went through that period raising my kids. My daughter was an All-American, and my son, All-American, both in track and field. 3.5 GPA. Our household was big in education. We come from strong genes and work ethic.
Misfortune Leads to Homelessness
So how did I get here? I ended up working in the school system for years in Lorain County. Coached tracked, started off as a teacher. Promoted to the administration. I was working with people in the general population, parents, kids, and different attitudes, come and go. Then, when my mother got sick, I had to come out the school system. I had to take care of my Mama.
My mom was diabetic, blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. I really had to take care of my Mom in Lorain. My mom refused to see any more doctors and I ended up moving my Mom back to Mississippi in 2010. When I left my Mom, I thought, “Well, I’m not going to be able to get back in the workforce.” I had a friend here in Cleveland who recommended LMM, so I came here to 2100.
Started off as a Monitor in 2015. Lately I’m full time in programming. What I learned along the way, how to be responsible. Brought all that into Lorain City Schools and now here again at the shelter. Are you dependable? Can you work with a team? Are you a people person? Had all that.
Before I got here, I had a bad divorce to the point where I just gave up the house, my cars, I just wanted peace. I started over because I was built to work, built to start over, strong genes. And one other thing – I had around me was a strong support team.
Lessons from Homelessness
Were you ever homeless?
I was homeless for a short period of time when I got divorced. Gave up everything. As a man with my independence, I wanted to get back myself. I could have easily went down South, back to Mississippi, but I stayed in a shelter in Lorain County instead.
There, I saw how people didn’t have anything. They didn’t have a support team around them. They didn’t have good, strong work ethic. I seen what a struggle looks like. You need clothes. You need shoes, all those sorts of things. When I was in the shelter, I still had income. I was still working, so I didn’t mind sharing. Even in the condition I was in, my state was still better than theirs. Always said, “You know what, if I’m able, I’m going to help them.” Then, maybe, they might help somebody else.
We’re Just a Paycheck Away
My stay was brief in the shelter. But this is what I take to the guys now: I saw what it’s like to not have a home. I know what it feels like to stay in a shelter. Maybe my stay wasn’t as long as yours, but I was in one…I know.
I try to tell the guys here: some people don’t have a roof over their heads, some people don’t have food to eat. Some people don’t have shoes on their feet. Some people don’t have a way to wash their clothes. The shelter where I was at didn’t have those things, no way to wash clothes, but I could still go over to my brother’s and wash clothes. I had two sisters in Lorain County. I could still go over there and take a nice hot shower.
I was still working in the school system; I was an assistant principal. I knew my stay would be brief. I just needed to save, save enough to get me an apartment. God blessed me where I was able to go right back into a house. When I first got here to 2100, I was already in my own place.
Those Were the Dark Days
Coming out of the marriage, my ex-wife didn’t like me. Would call the police on me. What was so gracious about it was I had people I knew in the court system, bailiffs. I was well known in the community because I coached their kids, their grandkids. So, going through the divorce, they knew what was going on. They were sympathetic. Still, those were my dark years. I went through that for about 3 years. Separated ’07, and the divorce was final in ‘09. A lot of fighting about access, and finally I decided to give it all to her. We ain’t got to fight no more. You can have the kids. One thing I did do as a parent, I never badgered my kids’ mom. Before my mom passed in 2020, one thing she commended me on was how I protected my kids and their feelings. A lot of things I went through, dealing with domestic issues, I can now cross over and help the guys with here. I share my life experience with them, so they can see how I came out of it.
Speaking Life, Not Death, Into Me
There’s a lot to tell. I can be here all day telling what I have been through! I worked with LMM all through Covid, sometimes 2 shifts. When I caught Covid, I thought I was going to die! Before that, I dealt with divorce. I dealt with domestic issues. I dealt with being homeless. I dealt with sometimes feeling helpless. I felt vulnerable. I was hurt. I was hurting bad. I had to get around positive people who were going to speak life, not death, into me. Yes, you can make a change! Yes, you can get up on your feet. If you allow yourself to say, “I can’t do it,” you won’t get up out of that bed. I just surrounded myself with people who would encourage me to do more than what I was doing. I’ve been that way ever since. To this day, I surround myself with positive people. A lot of us is real close; we have these stories. We talk about our background, where we came from, and how we help other people now. They be looking at me like Big brother. I’ll be 52 this year, I’m older than others, so I’m the Big-Little brother (Preston is shorter than some of the other guys on staff).
Preston is laughing. One of Preston’s best qualities is his humor. What a difference that makes at the shelter. Later he talks about his Mom having a sense of humor even while up to her ears in work. I can almost imagine his early years – hearing Preston laugh in this warm familial context.
Here at 2100, I see a lot of guys have energy, but they don’t know how to put it in the right place. They need somebody to get behind them and help them to do it, right? I also see guys who don’t want to do anything. I feel these guys need to be pushed a little bit, so I get behind them like that. They say, Preston, “You’re rough, you’re hard, but you’re fair.” Yeah, I had people who cared for me. I was a Mama’s boy. Up until my mom passed recently, I was still a mama’s boy, right? I couldn’t do no wrong in her eyesight – I loved it. I ate it up. I gloried in it. Even the wrongs I did do, my mom said, “Oh, you’re doing great.”
(Preston collapsing into tears of laughter at this point. Preston has the best laugh of anyone in the entire shelter, I decide.)
So, my sisters, they be still telling me today, “You a Mama’s boy. You can’t get on your son ‘cause he’s a Mama’s boy.” I say, “Well you know what, it just runs in the family.”
And my grandmother has always been there for me. She’s picked up even more since Mama’s gone.
Do you mean she is still alive?
My grandmother is still alive. She’ll be 90 years this year. I talk to her every weekend. She says “You look just like your mama.” I say, “I look just like you.” (more warm laughter)
The Power of Humor to Lift Us Up
Oh Man, I ain’t going to lie, my sisters and I get it from my mom. My mom had a great sense of humor. Even in your darkest hour, laugh. You know, you don’t want to fall into a depression. We had a lot of people fall into depression in our family. Some didn’t make it out. So, my mother always instilled it in her boy. No matter what state you find yourself in, laughing is medicine for the soul, right. Even in my hardest times, I found a joke in it. People ask, how can you joke, Preston? I say, we’ll I can’t sit here an’ cry. Crying ain’t going to do you no good, ain’t going to bring you out of this situation!
I’ve heard residents say here, “The narrower the road, the broader the smile.”
So true. I seen my mother go through guys hitting on her when I was younger. To the point where I say, when I get older, I’m going to protect my mother. And I did. I say ‘No more, Mom.’ Like I said, I was a Mama’s boy. Even when I got married, I stayed close, because you only get one mother.
Yeah, when my mom was called home last year, I was at peace. She did all she could do for her kids. I take my hat off to single mothers. I watched her struggle. I seen my grandmother raise 13 kids in a 3 bedroom house. Listen, 13! I asked my grandmother, how did you do it?
Preston imitates his grandmother in a priceless voice, high pitched and slow Southern: ‘Baby, you just got to do what you got to do.’
We laid on quilts on the floor. My grandmother made them by hand. We had beds…13 of us and 6 beds. The girls slept in one room. All the boys slept in another room. And we had quilts on the floor in the living room. We had to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning.
So now I get up at 4 or 5 o’clock and I’m asked, ‘why you get up so early when you don’t have to be at work until 9:00?’ I’ve been that way since I was a kid. Laughing more. Gets Preston going and suddenly I can see the funny side of everything, and I see that laughter is a medicine for colder realities of life.
My day begins at 5 in the morning. If I get up later I feel like I’m already behind in work.
The Role of Race
Did you encounter racial discrimination growing up – any barriers through your life?
As a kid, growing up in Mississippi, I seen all of it, the good, the bad and the ugly. I seen African Americans being beaten by white people. I seen discrimination on the job and how certain ethnic groups be treated more honorable than others. I feel to this day, race will always be there, but you can overcome that with how you respond. Like I said, I lived it. I still see it. I didn’t allow it to affect my work. Instead, it’s how I responded, how I carried myself.
I feel like this, as long as I know who I am, who God knows I am-that’s all that matters. I know what my mom, what my grandmother instilled in me. Be a decent person, you know, just be a decent person. Sometimes I’d say, Mom, you’re minimizing race issues. But she’d say, “No, I’m not minimizing. It’s what you give to it.” The energy you give to it is how they’re going respond back. So, I don’t feed into it. When I run into racism, I know how I’m going to respond.
A List from Mama
Before she died, my mom gave me a whole list of stuff that I got to do. I said, “Lord have mercy, I hope I get a chance to do at least half of it.” She said, “You make sure you get married because that’s the right thing to do.” I said, “I’m not going to let you down.” And I didn’t!
On June 24th, 2022, Preston married Victoria with his large family looking on.