TAMPA —- When Veronica Taylor needs a moment to herself, she tends to her yard.
Not too long ago, she had to choose between keeping the lights or the water on, and she worried whether there would be enough money to put food on the table to feed her four kids.
Taylor, 45, wants her kids — her 12-year-old-son, 10-year-old daughter and now 4- and 1-year old foster children — to see her go to work every day. She wants them to see her cooking for them and washing their clothes. But she doesn’t want them to see her struggle.
“I can’t let them see me fail,” she said. “Life is hard enough as it is. If they see me fail, that’s what they’ll expect for themselves.”
So, she steps outside and pulls together a smile.
“I try to put up that strong face and say, ‘Hey! We got it,’ even if we don’t have it,” she said. “We’ve made it this far.”
When Taylor was 25, she moved from her hometown of Waycross, Ga. to Tampa with a man she thought she was in love with. The relationship didn’t work out, but Taylor stayed in Tampa and in 2007, gave birth to her first child, Ernest.
His father got in trouble with the law, and Taylor moved back to Georgia when Ernest was 6 months old. She gave birth to her second child, Amani, in Georgia, but she struggled to find work and her footing again in her hometown.
In 2010, she returned to Tampa, where there were more opportunities. She found work at call centers and cleaning services to support her kids.
When Ernest was 3, he was diagnosed with autism. She would leave work when child care centers couldn’t deal with her son and called, asking her to pick him up because he was acting out.
“Sometimes people don’t understand,” Taylor said. “He spins or will walk into someone. Someone will take it the wrong way.”
Taylor worries about her son as he reaches his teen years without a male mentor in his life.
“His struggle is so real and to see people judge him is hard,” she said. “This is not something that goes away, he’s going to have to deal with this the rest of his life. My worry is that if something were to happen to me, will my child be able to survive?”
Because finances have been tight, Taylor struggled to find tutoring for him. When Ernest began at Seminole Heights Elementary School, he found a teacher, Jamie DiCarlo, who Taylor calls a blessing. DiCarlo has worked with Ernest as he progressed through the years with other teachers.
“Mom is fabulous,” DiCarlo said. “Her kids are her life and her world. … You can tell that all she wants is their success.”
Taylor’s daughter wants to be an artist. She was sad to tell Amani a trip to the Dali museum wasn’t budget-friendly. But she saw a sign for The Centre for Girls, a program through the Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women that offered free art lessons.
“We have been with them through many changes and … it has been a great help to myself and my daughter,” Taylor said.
Taylor began attending school and started a daycare business with a partner who later became abusive. She left the business and the relationship got a job working at a child care center and moved to an apartment with her two kids in 2015.
“Having my kid’s witness some of the things said and have them cry about it, I realized this is not a situation to be in,” she said. “Sometimes you think you’re trying to make the best life for your kids but you realize it’s not the best situation.”
At the new apartment, she worried about her kids’ safety. There was regular fighting outside their apartment, and she once had them lie on the floor when she heard gunfire outside.
Though she knew her own situation was not ideal, Taylor decided to take in two foster children, now 4 years old and 14 months, when the mother of one of her daycare students lost custody.
If anything were to happen to her, Taylor said, she’d want to know her kids were together and being cared for by someone trustworthy.
“I have to deal with the fact that I have four sets of eyes looking back at me saying, ‘Hey, what are we gonna do? What’s next?’” Taylor said. “I got to do this the right way.”
She moved into a house in East Tampa, across from a park where the kids can play, but it’s made finances even tighter.
Still, Taylor tries to put aside a little from each paycheck to keep things normal for her kids: a paint set for her daughter; a speaker from the Dollar Store that plugs into a cell phone for her son, who wants to make music; a pair of shoes for her older foster daughter who acts like a princess.
“I just want them all to be who they want to be in life,” she said. “I want them to complete school. If I can have their dreams be their reality, that would mean a lot to me.”