CALUMET TWP. | Articulate, intelligent and brimming with charm, Calumet New Tech High School senior Robert Brown appears to have a bright future in music, business or politics -- he excels in all those subjects.
But a little more than five years ago, troubled and bereft, he was on the brink of being kicked out of his fifth foster home with nowhere to go.
A chance phone call brought him from Michigan to relatives in Gary, where he found a home and flourished for the first time. No longer would he have to watch his mother abuse drugs at the kitchen table or go to sleep to escape painful hunger pangs.
Brown, who turned 18 on Oct. 23, is a leader at school, often escorting visitors from across the country to tour Calumet, the first New Tech high school in Northwest Indiana. He is president of the Calumet Student Senate, the voice of the student body.
Calumet's drum major, he recently won two top awards. He is president of Calumet's SAAB, the Student African-American Brotherhood chapter. He runs track and has earned statewide choral music awards in voice and instrument. Brown maintains a 3.0 grade-point average. He is considering attending Indiana State University or Indiana University.
Calumet teachers Andrew Trevino and Sherri Green laud Brown as a passionate, outgoing young man who will go far in life.
Trevino said Brown is the type of kid who "always seems to find a way to succeed instead of using challenges as reasons to fail."
Green said Brown radiates confidence.
"He engages his audience from the moment he begins to speak until he ends. Robert is respected by his classmates and by staff," Green said.
"I don't think he knows a stranger, as he has the ability to put anyone and everyone at ease and can usually have them laughing before they blink."
Brown attends Calvary Tabernacle Apostolic Church in Griffith with his family where he is head drummer and a lead singer.
With a strong faith, Brown believes he has a purpose. However, had the situation been slightly different, he might not be here at all.
"My mom was in high school and 17 when she became pregnant with me," Brown said. "My mom and my dad were high school sweethearts in Detroit. He would have been the valedictorian of his senior class but was killed after being hit by a semi-truck before graduation. I have an older sister and my mother didn't think she could cope with two children, but she took the money she would have used for an abortion and put it toward funeral expenses."
From the time he was 2 years old, Brown said he was in and out of foster care. At some point, Brown lived with an aunt in Alabama. He said his mother went on to have three more children by different men. Brown said his mother married a man who seemed fairly wealthy and they lived in a condominium in Detroit, but the couple divorced.
"Things were not going well," Brown said. "My mom was battling the drugs and what-not. Mom got really bad when it came to the drugs. At first, it was just marijuana and eventually that led to crack, acid and pills.
"I remember nights when she would come home, and she'd give us $50 each and then she'd just leave for weeks. I was about 8 or 9 years old then," Brown said.
Brown said he became the man of the house, looking after his older sister and younger siblings, including a set of twin boys. He said the first time they had $50 each, he spent about $40 in two weeks on candy and only had $10 for food.
"We quickly realized we couldn't waste our money on candy. Eventually, we ran low on food. We came up with a plan for me to go out and steal from the stores," he said. "I was the oldest male in the family. I'd take my mom's husband's coat and wrap it around me and take bologna and bread and shove it inside my back or my arm sleeves."
Brown said his mother would come home in the morning, stay during the day and disappear at night.
"We were just happy to see her," he said.
"Eventually, it got so bad that we ate out of the garbage cans. I remember it was snowing one time and I found French toast."
Brown tells his story calmly, in a matter-of-fact way, almost as if he were speaking of someone else. Then there are times tears roll down his cheeks as he recalls his early life.
Several efforts over several weeks to reach Brown's mother for comment for this story were unsuccessful.
Over a span of five or six months, Brown said his mother disappeared three times. He and his older sister learned they could not always eat and had to give the food to the younger children.
"We'd give them food and we'd eat their crumbs," he said. "Sometimes there were no leftovers. There were times when my sister and I didn't eat for a week because we gave our food to them. Eventually we got so weak and numb that we couldn't afford not to eat. We had to cut down on their food for us to eat something."
Brown said they often slept to cope with the hunger. During one of those times, Brown said his mother was back. He said one of his twin brothers didn't wake up and they had to rush him to the hospital. He said the boy later died of malnutrition.
After that, Brown said his mother "hung around the house" a little more. He said his maternal grandmother died a week after his brother.
"My mother began doing drugs in front of us at the table. I remember standing watching her, and we'd be crying," he said.
Over the next couple of years, Brown was in and out of foster care. He said he was in five different foster homes in Detroit over two years. He remembers squirreling away hamburger or other food under his bed.
"I'd take raw meat and hide it under the bed or in the closet. The other kids would make fun of me, but I didn't know where my next meal was coming from so of course I was going to save food," he said, noting he was 11 or 12 at the time.
Brown is the first to say he was a troubled kid with behavior problems.
"It was painful to move from house to house," he said. "After my fifth foster home, they asked me if I wanted to go home. They told me, 'You're at the point that if you get kicked out of here, you're going to be confined by the state until you're 18.'
"I cursed her out," Brown said. "I told her I had no home. My dad is dead. My mom was gone. I was separated from all of my siblings."
At that point, Brown's great-aunt and great-uncle, Maria and Atlas Wedlow, of Gary, stepped in. Brown moved to the region a little more than five years ago, in the middle of his seventh-grade year.
Atlas Wedlow said they received a call from officials in the state of Michigan asking if they were aware of the children's situation and that they were in foster care. Wedlow said they knew Brown's mother was having problems but they did not know the extent.
Wedlow and his wife served as foster parents for Brown and his younger brother, and eventually legally adopted them. He attributes Brown's remarkable change to many hours of counseling and getting involved in church. Brown and his uncle say the counseling and his faith in God are what turned his life around.
"Both of them are very intelligent," Wedlow said of the brothers. "Robert helps me a lot with auto mechanics. He is very well-spoken. He has come a long way. There is nothing he can't do if he sets his mind to it. I'd love for the people at the different foster homes he was in to see him now."
Wedlow said Brown's older sister is in Alabama. He said the younger girl is still in Detroit and recently had a baby. He said he and his wife are bringing the girl and her baby into their home as well.
The Rev. Craig Harper, pastor of Calvary Tabernacle Apostolic Church in Griffith, called Brown an outstanding young man.
"He is the kind of person who is constantly reaching out to people. I believe with his past history and the things that he has faced, he can help others," Harper said.
Brown said he often had nightmares when he was in foster care in Detroit. He dreamed he was surrounded by people who were going to hurt him, or he was dying. He said the nightmares didn't stop until he began praying every night.
Brown said he saw his mother in March for the first time in seven years, noting he is unsure if she's off drugs, but she has gained weight.
"She used to be really, really skinny," he said.
"No matter what, she'll always be my mother. No matter the pain I've been through, she's my mother. That's the love that I believe God instilled in me. The main reason why I am who I am today is because of God. That's what has gotten me through the nightmares and everything that I've been through."