A long dining table during lunch time in a Highland Square home is invitingly set with with a big bowl of mixed greens in the center. A heaping plate of freshly grilled chicken and other salad toppings in bowls of shredded cheeses, olives, vegetables and dressings surround it, along with hearty, grain breads and fruity preserves.
Evelyn “Evey” Williams says a blessing while five of her nine children and her husband Michael bow their heads.
The table conversation is at first a low whirr, like an airliner idling on a tarmac. But then, after bread is broken, it takes off full throttle down the runway, with laughter, shrieks and gentle ribbing among siblings.
With Mother’s Day approaching, the Williams household recently spent time sharing what’s it’s like to be a part of a large family whose mom wears enough hats to make a milliner blush.
Evey and Michael, whom she met in high school and is originally from Chattanooga, are no lightweights to large families, as they are each one of seven children.
Michael weighs in on coming from and raising a large clan. “You see everybody at the table, having a good time,” he says. “It feels like normal but sometimes it’s a little hair-raising.”
“Especially when the bills are due,” adds Evey, with a laugh.
Those gathered at the Williams’ table are polite, well-mannered and well-spoken.
Scholarly duties added to parenting
Kami, the couple’s 24-year-old daughter who lives in her own home and has a young son, takes plates from everybody and fills them with salad. An assembly line of hands circle the table, passing this and that to see who wants what on their chicken salad.
“Growing up in a big family is not a big deal; I think it’s cool,” says 17-year-old Josiah. “Mom’s really funny, sarcastic sometimes, and easy to get along with … most of the time.”
Grins surround the table.
“She’s intense,” offers Isaiah, who’s 28.
In addition to motherhood, Evey just finished her master’s thesis at Kent State University, where she also is a teaching assistant. She home schools the youngest of their children with her husband and helps care for her live-in, 89-year-old mother, Martha, who has Alzheimer’s.
When she’s not on this side of the Atlantic, she’s in Kenya, where she works with African women in poverty and with disabilities, helping to promote emotional and physical wellness through community health initiatives.
In addition to Isaiah, Kami and Josiah, the couple, who’ve been together for 28 years, have six other children: Jessica, 13; Kaitlyn, 16; Elijah, 19; 21-year-old Lisa; Franchessca, who’s 26, married and the mother of four; and the oldest, 30-year-old Samantha, who is Evey’s child from a former relationship whom Michael adopted.
Samantha, Franchessca, Lisa and Elijah were away working during this Friday afternoon visit.
“I have a comment to make sure that this gets on the record,” Evey says. “When I’m teaching, I tell my students at the beginning of the year that as their teacher, I learn more from them than they do from me. And I feel the same way about my family, that I get more from being their mother than they gain from me being their mother. And I really mean that, sincerely.”
As with many families, meal time is key for the Williamses to connect, though the actual times can be “hit or miss,” Michael says.
The family enjoys other activities such as taking vacations together and play time, evident by the bookshelves brimming with board games.
Evey recalls, “Our biggest adventure was catching a shark,” which the family cooked.
A favorite Williams getaway is Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.
Education is important to Evey, who went back to school during the last decade, earning an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s in psychology and is finishing her master’s in health education and promotion with a concentration in community health. Her thesis is titled “Kenyan Women with Disabilities: An Assessment of Social Support and Mental Health Status.”
Home school experience
She and Michael have home schooled their children for the past 24 years.
“It’s been a real struggle going back to school, making sure everything gets done, and sometimes the kids really have to sacrifice and work on stuff at night,” Evey says. “But I think the kids expressed they never really missed being in a [traditional] school environment, because they’ve seen their peers and their experiences and compared them to their own.”
Evey adds that her children have been given a lot of opportunities that have enhanced their education that they would not have had, had they not been home schooled.
“I really miss, ‘Hey guys, we’re going on a field trip to Sandusky to a winery and learn about fermentation to talk about what we learned in chemistry,’” Evey says.
Throughout their home schooling years, Evey says she and Michael were and continue to be asked about the socialization aspect of their children of not learning in a traditional classroom setting.
Isaiah, who has an associate’s degree in business, says he doesn’t feel like “I missed a thing.”
The children laugh in unison, and Josiah adds, “I must say I have a ton of friends and have all my life!”
With their mom’s busy lifestyle, the Williams children work collaboratively — and well, it seems.
There are days, Evey says, she works four 12-hour days, so she’s looking forward to spending more time with her family once she doffs her mortarboard in August after receiving her newly minted master’s degree.
Until then, she says her children “always rise to the occasion” to the chores and responsibilities she and Michael assign them.
“They’ll be in my acknowledgements in my thesis, which they’ll probably never read, but I’ll read it to them,” Evey says. “If I didn’t feel confident I could leave and be able to do what I do without their help, I would not have been able to accomplish what I have.”
With her work overseas, Evey credits the success of her Kenyan trips in part to her husband, who accompanied her there in 2012, and the support of their offspring, who have collectively served on more than 50 mission and community service trips before “I took my first venture to Kenya,” she says.
Setting a template for her children
Evey’s work in Kenya is extensive and began at the urging of a stateside friend who invited her to the east African state to meet a Kenyan woman who founded an NGO (non governmental organization) specifically designed for women with disabilities.
As with many grassroots organizations, the founder was discouraged in getting it off the ground and obtaining funding was even tougher.
Evey came on board and initially it “was challenging because I could find nothing in academic research on that population of women,” she recalls.
After further research and secondary analyses, which would become the theme for her master’s thesis (an assessment of social support and the mental health status of these women with disabilities from three areas: family, friends and significant others), Evey found it was “actually the social support of friends that was the biggest predictor of mental health … and I implemented a stress management training specifically for the Kenyan women,” she says.
Her work will continue in Kenya. And here at home, there’s the nonprofit BAMCO 4 Youth (Building Achievement Motivation and Creative Opportunity for Youth and their Families), she co-founded in 2001 and for which she is the director.
“Four of our kids were going to be entering their teens, and we felt there was not a lot out there in terms of building potential and teaching short- and long-term goals,” Evey says of BAMCO. “So I put together a teen curriculum called ‘positivity’ (positive + activity), where my goal was to incorporate community service, life opportunities to help kids find some kind of focus, a plan for themselves.”
In addition to the Akron area, BAMCO has a current collaboration in Uganda and Kenya, Africa.
Michael says of his wife: “She’s very driven as far as things needing to get done and has a lot of good mom qualities, does gardening, won some awards, started a Block Watch 21 years ago …”
Evey concedes, her achievements both past and present are not about setting a template for her children.
“What I’m doing right now is not an expectation of what I have for my kids; No, I hope I’ve inspired them by going back to school, but I think sometimes they think I am inspiring them to be like me,” Evey says. “But really, I’m not. I want to inspire them to do what they’re really passionate about.”
From what some of the children have planned for themselves, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Their career choices at this time vary and all share a creative and practical thread, addressing three basic needs of humanity: food, clothing and medicine.
Josiah, who likes to bake, with a nod toward pizza, and would like to own a cafe with great homemade desserts, says, “I want to go to culinary school.”
“And Isaiah’s got the best cheesecake,” he adds.
Kaitlyn says she’s “thinking about being a nurse,” while Jessica hopes to dress the masses and wants “to be a fashion designer.”
Kami was recently certified as an events coordinator and enjoys planning weddings best because “they’re a big challenge, and I like a challenge,” she says.
Evey smiles, reflects for a moment, and says: “I have this vision one day, it might not be all the kids, that they’ll get together and open something big. They have that kind of drive and those kinds of dreams to have their own business.”
Once that happens, perhaps more vacations will be in order, the group says.
Michael agrees — with one stipulation.
“As long as we get to go to dad’s favorite spot, Hilton Head Island.”
So much for a democracy.
The thrum of life continues in the Williams house. The table is being cleared, and Kaitlyn and Jessica hop aboard a teeter-totter on the front lawn with a little guy for whom Kami is a nanny.
“I’d never be the person I am today having not gone through the challenges and the joys of being a mom of a large family,” Evey says. “People ask me how I do it, I used to say, ‘Day by day, but it’s pretty much hour by hour.’”
Later on, Jessica sums up her mom quite playfully.
“She’s sassy, but she has our best interest at heart. And, then like you say, Mom, I really mean it.”