- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 16, 2014

CHELSEA, Ala. (AP) - Maygen Boaz-Jeffords remembers her first run-in with the law. She was 7 years old.

Police caught her rummaging through a dumpster, searching for food to feed her brother and sister in one of the many times they were left alone by their mother.

Boaz-Jeffords‘ mother, Amber, worked in strip clubs and battled substance abuse. Her father was convicted of murder and sentenced to life-plus in Florida, leaving a single parent with three mouths to feed.

“At one point, it was two weeks where (Maygen) was alone by herself to forage for the two other children,” said Belinda Jeffords, her paternal grandmother. “She was 7. Her brother was 4 and her little sister was 2-years-old. They were turned into the state, because somebody caught her foraging in a dumpster to feed the kids.”

That was her low point.

Now a senior at Chelsea High School, Boaz-Jeffords has a partial athletic scholarship to play softball at the University of Mobile. On Monday, the Bryant-Jordan Student Athlete Scholarship Foundation awarded her $8,500 in scholarships as the Class 6A and Overall Student Achievement winner - rewarding her for overcoming personal obstacles to excel both on and off the field.

She was all by herself that day by that dumpster, but she would eventually be helped.

“We were so young and she’d do so much in front of us,” Boaz-Jeffords said of her mother. “She would sit there and do drugs in front of us like it was no big deal. . I remember a lot of syringes and needles and a pipe-looking thing. It had a real weird smell.”

The Chelsea centerfielder said her mother even took her to work with her.

“I remember being in one stripper club,” she added. “I remember there were poles everywhere and it smelled weird and smoky and awful. . It was like after-hours, because there were only like three people there.”

Belinda Jeffords took in the mother of her grandchildren, when she still was a senior in high school. Amber’s father had died, and the families lived in the same Florida neighborhood. Amber eventually married Belinda’s son, Andrew.

She saw trouble coming even before her son was sentenced to life in prison. Her son’s dependence on drugs drowned him, she said.

“Their mother would have a boyfriend living in the house with their father and his girlfriend,” Belinda Jeffords said. “I tried to take them in and get custody by telling them it wasn’t healthy. They’d be doing drugs in one room. The kids would be in another. It wasn’t a place for children to be around, and my son knew that at times. He’d call and tell me to come get the kids for awhile because things were getting bad.”

Amber moved the kids to Houston after he went to prison.

A 3 a.m. phone call led to an important discovery. Amber Boaz needed money to relocate with Hurricane Katrina bearing down on the Gulf.

“Right away,” Jeffords said, “I noticed she said, ‘I need money to get away from Texas.’ I was like, ‘What about we? Where are the kids? And where would they be going?’”

Belinda had no idea her grandchildren had been placed in foster care in the wake of the dumpster incident. She asked her daughter-in-law for a name to call. She was on the phone the first minute of business hours the next day.

“I told that case worker I was the paternal grandmother, and I wanted the kids,” she said.

The case worker replied she was told there was nobody. Jeffords said there were quite a lot of “somebodies” that loved those kids. They sold their retirement property and cracked their nest egg. They hired lawyers from Florida and Texas to take up their custody fight from both sides.

Texas law stated that since the children had been placed in foster care that a one-year waiting period was required. Their home had to be inspected. Background checks and income verifications followed.

The Jeffords said they spent $56,000 in the pursuit of their grandchildren. Belinda Jeffords was the paternal grandmother. She had remarried. Her husband, Todd Jeffords, was not even a blood relative.

“We sold the snot out of that retirement home quick as we could,” she said. “We were getting those kids, and my husband didn’t hesitate for a second to make it happen. That’s the best $56,000 we ever spent.”

Belinda Jeffords used some of the $56,000 to reboot three lives. It paid for the many hotel rooms and flights from Florida to Texas during visitation windows during that last year of foster care.

It paid for three new wardrobes. There were piles of toys and stacks of coloring books waiting when they moved in. The youngest, Andrilynn, got the canopy bed she always wanted.

Jeffords still keeps the Dec. 6 declaration in her purse. Boaz-Jeffords, who was still 9 at the time, was consulted about a possible name change.

She wanted to respect the unique name of her parents but also pay tribute to the Jeffords. The names of the children were changed to reflect that.

When their grandmother picked them up to move them away, Boaz-Jeffords couldn’t stop crying that day. It was a 15-hour drive from Texas to Florida, but it was also her road back to the normal life she so desperately wanted.

“I remember those bad days and how I got through it,” Boaz-Jeffords said. “I’d just know every day had to end. I had to take care of my brother and sister on a daily basis, but I knew each day had to end, and I had to take care of them.”

The new family moved to the Birmingham area when she was in the seventh grade.

“That little girl was so strong,” Belinda said. “She was 9 going on 90. We didn’t rescue her. She rescued herself and her siblings. She’s such a strong young woman, and she has been for quite some time.”

Boaz-Jeffords writes her father in prison. She’ll visits two times per year. She takes those visits making sure her anger doesn’t spill over. She’s there to cheer him up.

She speaks to her mother on the phone, but hasn’t seen her since they were placed in her grandparents’ custody. The talks are cordial, but tension remains.

There were a few good days filled up by amusement and water parks and an occasional trip to Chuck E. Cheese. She keeps a teddy bear her mother gave her.

“I also remember one of the last conversations we had,” Boaz-Jeffords said. “It was right before that dumpster. She asked if she was a good mother, and I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t know what to say because I knew at the time she wasn’t a good mother.”

Boaz-Jeffords was part of a state championship softball team at Chelsea in 2012. She can now look back on her lost childhood and can find a bright side.

“I watch SpongeBob all the time because I didn’t get the chance to when I was a kid,” she said. “I’m making sure I live my childhood now. I’ll still sleep with a teddy bear. I didn’t get that stuff when I was younger so I’m catching up.”


Information from: The Birmingham News, https://www.al.com/birminghamnews

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