MIDWEST CITY — The remarkable thing about Evelyn Young-Cummings and husband William Cummings isn't the size of their family. It's the size of their hearts.
In 1995, the couple decided to leave their native California and come to Oklahoma. They had good reason. Her parents were living here, and her father was ill. Moreover, they had two children — Brandi, now 25, and William II, now 20 — and wanted their kids to grow up in a safer environment than they'd known.
Evelyn, 49, whose father was a pastor, had come of age in South Central Los Angeles, an area renowned for gang violence. William, 50, grew up in the projects on the city's east side.
“There were shootings; there were stabbings; there were muggings,” he said. “It was getting into fights all the time. It was rough, but all of my family lived in those projects. My aunts and uncles all lived pretty much right next to us, so we didn't get much trouble.
“If you hit one of us, you had to hit all of us. We took care of our neighborhood. If someone was hungry, we fed them. If you needed food, you'd just go to someone's apartment and eat. We didn't lock doors.”
That sort of “family first” attitude was ingrained in William and his wife. He had six siblings. She had five.
“My Dad always taught us: We take care of our family no matter what; we just figure it out,” Evelyn said. “And that's what we did.”
No matter how big their family got.
Exercise in addition
Almost from the moment they announced their plans to leave California, the family's numbers began to grow.
Evelyn's brother asked her to take his two children with her. She said yes, so Ly'Nisha Young, now 25, and Harold Young, now 27, joined them.
Then Evelyn's brother's wife, from whom he was separated, asked if she could send her son along, too. Martin Fields, now 29, joined the party.
That was just the beginning.
At some point, Evelyn's sister, who was in the military, asked the couple to take in her two children. Carlisha May, now 23, and Terri Evans, now 19, moved into the Cummings' Midwest City home.
One of Evelyn's cousins got wrapped up in drugs. Evelyn's aunt asked her to take in the cousin's four children. Michael Wilson, now 21; Tony Wilson-Young, now 20; Deon Wilson, now 18; and Leon Wilson-Young, now 17, joined the family.
Evelyn + William + Brandi + William II + Ly'Nisha + Harold + Martin + Carlisha + Terri + Michael + Tony + Deon + Leon = 13.
They weren't done yet.
A hospital asked the Cummings to care for another child. They have legal custody of Tatyana Martin, now 12.
Another of Evelyn's sisters, who lives nearby, needed help raising her daughter. The Cummings added Ariel Benny, now 21, to the list.
Tatyana + Ariel + 13 = 15.
Fifteen people, all under one roof.
It wasn't exactly how William had expected to live.
“I didn't think I was going to be taking on all this responsibility,” he said. “I knew I was going to have a couple (children) of my own. Growing up, we were going to have two kids, a white picket fence and a dog.”
Instead, he ended up with an overflowing five-bedroom house, packed with bunk beds and groceries. He and his wife, as well as their biological children, wouldn't have it any other way.
“Before another child would come, we always asked our own children” if it was OK, Evelyn said. “They loved the attention. They always had somebody to play with.”
Firm but loving
For a while, William and Evelyn had children in every grade in the Midwest City school system. They didn't have a minivan or a bus, so they hauled the children around in two cars, adopting a meticulous schedule built around their work shifts.
Evelyn, who teaches parenting skills through Community Health Center Inc., worked the 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift. Her husband, who does asset protection for Walmart, worked from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
“He would drop them off, and I would pick them up,” Evelyn said. “We would just maneuver the day to get them back and forth to school and activities.”
They established a strict routine for the children and a code of conduct. Both were necessary, William said, to keep the kids on the right path.
“If they would've stayed where they were, they would've been rebellious and wound up in gangs or prison or dead,” he said. “They came here for the discipline.”
Among the rules:
The household maintained a firm 9 p.m. bedtime. The children didn't necessarily have to go to sleep at that time, but they had to be inside their rooms with the doors closed.
“My husband would always get off work later in the night,” Evelyn said. “I had to give him his time. So after 9 p.m., we didn't sign any papers. We didn't give any lunch money. And then once a week, we would just go out on a date.”
Home for holidays
Now that many of the children are grown, Evelyn and William have established another rule: Everyone must come home for the holidays.
“That's mandatory,” William said. “You have to come home for either Christmas or Thanks
Evelyn said she's done taking in more people, although life already has proved her wrong. The family has grown. Three grandchildren — ages 5, 3 and eight months — are staying at the house, and Evelyn's mother has moved in with them, too.
“I told my Mom that the day she passes away, I'm putting the house on the market and getting a one-bedroom condo,” Evelyn said, laughing.
William is more pragmatic.
“The inn is never closed,” he said. “There will always be someone here. We've come to realize that.”
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