New America Media
On the surface, Marquise Cormier seems like an average teenager - he’s
happy, plays on his high school football team and likes going to parties. But
underneath his 16-year-old shoulder pads is a weight of poverty and want brought
on by the death of his grandfather and the severe illness of his grandmother.
Marquise Cormier and his grandmother, Kenny. (NAM)
The Los Angeles youth’s grandparents, Paul and Kenny Jones, raised him since
he was about a year old, at the request of Kenny’s son from an earlier
marriage, who became the boy’s father when he was only 17. Marquise’s
teenage mother did the best she could, Kenny said, but was simply unable to
provide for him and her daughter.
The aging couple was uniquely qualified for their unexpected new parenthood of
their grandson. Before retiring, both worked with young people. Kenny directed
an at-risk youth center and Paul managed a gang intervention program in L.A.’s
low-income and largely African American South Central section.
Marquise and his grandparents lived comfortably until Kenny, now in her late
60s, became ill, and Paul, in his mid-70s, died of a heart attack a year
Prior to Paul’s death, he and Kenny relied on their two Social Security
checks, and both Kenny and Marquise earned money through motivational speaking
engagements and the sale of books they’d each written.
By age 7, Marquise achieved recognition worthy of a child prodigy. To occupy
himself on the weekends and stay out of trouble, the child entrepreneur bought
wholesale products and created a company to sell them called Unique Treasures.
At the same age, he wrote the book, I Am
Not a Problem Child (Milligan Books, 2002), about how he
successfully fought his school’s plan to put him on medication and in special
Marquise was secure financially, mentally and spiritually in a home with two
loving grandparents. He and Kenny were inseparable.
Then, in August 2009, Kenny began bleeding from her brain. About three weeks
after she returned home, she was hospitalized again due to a severe allergic
reaction to medication she took for an unrelated infection. Kenny found she’d
developed a rare condition called Steven Johnson Syndrome, which causes severe
allergic reactions to medication. She fell into a coma for 21 days, and emerged
from it partially blind. Today, she continues receiving treatment.
Marquise’s stability was shaken. Kenny was everything to him - grandmother,
caregiver, publicist, manager, transporter and cheerleader. His grandparents
meant a lot to him. The proud grandmother chronicled his life and
accomplishments in several large-sized photo albums and scrapbooks, volumes that
eventually took on special meaning for him.
“To go from where I was has been very, very difficult for me because I can’t
see,” Kenny said. “I’m not able to get around like I used to, and I do
things around my house based on memorization.”
Payday Loan Hell
Kenny detailed how her life with Marquise spiraled downward after Paul’s
death. “Here I am, basically handicapped. I don’t have any money.”
Besides the emotional blow, Paul’s death slashed the household income by
$3,000 a month – Paul’s Social Security and disability checks.
Her remaining income “doesn’t go very far,” she said. “It totals $1,164,
and I still have a grandson I need to take care of.”
Kenny worried over costs, such as her past-due gas bill of $94 and utility
bills. “I’m not able to help Marquise buy anything like I used to, nor take
him around where he was very independent and earned his own money,” she said,
adding: “Sometimes I feel very inept and inadequate. But I say, to God be the
A devout person, Kenny stressed that she doesn’t throw “pity parties,” and
doesn’t blame God for her troubles.
Kenny tried to hold on to the home she and her husband had rented for years, but
her reduced income made that hard.
Now, living at a low-income housing unit for seniors, she recalled, “When I
came in here, I was so behind in debt due in part to medical bills after my
husband died, I started getting payday loans, and that is bondage. That is
straight out of the pit of hell. I found myself having to go back and
continuously get a payday loan to pay off another payday loan, and another, and
that’s how I had to balance it for a while to pay off all the payday loans,”
Although Kenny was able to move into the senior complex, her lease agreement
restricts the number of days visitors can stay overnight. As a result, Marquise
must shuttle between her apartment and the homes of his maternal grandmother -
who is also stretched thin helping both him and her other grandchildren.
“He’s changed,” Kenny said of Marquise. “He’s not a little boy
She lamented, “Here he is, a junior in school. It’s winter time. He only has
two pair of long pants that he’s outgrown because over the summer he shot up.
He got thicker and taller. He has about two pair of sweats, one pair of jeans
and some shorts. He has no clothes because I don’t have the money right now to
let him go buy three or four pair of slacks. He plays football, and he does not
complain because he wasn’t raised that way.”
Despite their hardships, Jones said she gets by because of her faith in God and
help from family. Her daughter and a few friends make sure they have food, she
Marquise said he views the ordeal as a blessing in disguise because it helped
him to mature. In these tough times, he said, he began to understand life in a
different way and view it from others’ perspectives and experiences. He feels
he became more humble and less selfish, and that the experience built up his
Marquise started taking buses and learned “when and when not to use my
resources,” he said. He began selling candy because “I didn’t have any
money at all to eat. I had to go the whole day without eating until I got home
and hopefully, there was something to eat,” he said.
“It was just a process of me becoming I guess a man, if that’s what it
is,” Marquise said.
He continued, “I adjusted by staying with God, first of all. That’s what
kept me grounded and focused on what I needed to do ... I had to really sit down
and think about what’s going to happen. What’s not going to happen. What I
was going to allow to happen. What I cannot control and how to accept that.”
“This is Who I Am”
Marquise also found strength in the scrapbooks his grandmother had put together.
“I really went back to my book and was like, man, so this is who I am. This is
what I really am, and I’ve got to prove to people this is who I still am. I
really have a talk with myself,” he said.
Wistfully Marquise recounted: “Sometimes, subconsciously, I’d walk around
with my shoulders back and my head up like, yeah, I’m not a problem child. I
used to do the speaking engagements. I used to sign autographs all the time.
Every time I sign my name on a paper, I write in cursive just because I feel
like I’m signing a book again, and I feel like it’s my signature and it’s
“I never thought I’d be in the situation I’m in now, looking back on my
life,” said the 16- year-old.
Charlene Muhammad wrote this series through a New
America Media Fellowship on the Hidden Face of Poverty. It is reproduced
on RedwoodAge.com with permission.