Shatavia Nolder wonders how her life would have turned out if her mother hadn’t died when Nolder was 3 years old.

But Helen Nolder did die of ovarian cancer when she was 31 years old – the same age as Nolder is now – and Nolder has struggled to lift herself out of poverty ever since.

Twice homeless – in 2008 when she took her daughters to Georgia to live with her older sister and most recently this summer – the mother of two recounts an unhappy childhood, sent to live with relatives who she said physically and sexually abused her.

At the age of 13, Nolder moved in with her sister, but got into fights at school, started selling drugs at 19 and was arrested for selling crack when she was 22.

“I think about my mom a lot and how different things might have been. Would I have not sold drugs? Maybe I wouldn’t have gone down the road I did,” said Nolder, whose mother was diagnosed with cancer while she was pregnant with Nolder but dismissed doctors’ advice to terminate the pregnancy. “My life is in shambles. I made mistakes. But I’ve gotta stay strong for my girls.”

Nolder and her fiancé, Clarence Edwards, have two daughters, Za’Mierah, 10, and Za’Layah, 8, who was born without bones in her legs and feet, toes fused together.

Za’Layah has undergone multiple surgeries to separate and amputate toes and insert rods in her legs.

Doctors told Nolder that Za’Layah would probably never walk and considered amputating her legs. But today her “miracle child” runs and jumps like any other third-grader.

“Za’Layah makes me strong,” said Nolder.

“She has been through so many trials and tribulations already and she has more surgeries ahead, but she’s always smiling and happy.”

Nolder isn’t looking for sympathy.

She just wants people to know that the woman who sold drugs nearly a decade ago isn’t the same one who is trying to raise two daughters. And that she’d love to get a better job, perhaps working with handicapped kids.

But those self-destructive decisions have complicated her efforts to get a better job and find a home.

She is still paying restitution and is hoping to get her record expunged when her fine is paid.

Will she ever, she wonders, get a second chance?

“People asked if I was really putting my story in the paper, and I said, yes. It will encourage people to think about their life and think about what you’re doing before you make a wrong choice,” said Nolder. “I want to live a good life and do things the right way. I need to provide for my kids, and even though I don’t make that much money, everything I have now is what I worked for.”

Nolder found an ally in Joyce Ellis, executive director of LeMoyne Community Center, who recently helped her get into county housing, where she now lives with Edwards (she was able to get on the lease at his Jollick Manor apartment) and the girls.

“This young lady is trying,” said Ellis, who attended a hearing with Nolder to allow her to share the lease with Edwards, despite her record and financial issues. “She’s playing by the rules and trying to get ahead. When she found out she could move into the apartment, she was crying and laughing at the same time. It makes it rewarding when you see this happen.”

Between December and June, when she was homeless, Nolder went back and forth between the homes of friends while the girls stayed with Edwards. She visited them every day.

She took a job at an Italian restaurant (she worked at a McDonald’s for 10 years and was a manager there), but her hours have been cut back significantly. Nolder said she was devastated recently when she didn’t get a job working with the handicapped.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with people with disabilities, even when I was in high school. I’m so miserable not being able to do something better. They told me they liked me, but they couldn’t give me the job because of my background,” said Nolder.

Because she grew up without her mother, Nolder works hard at being a good mom. She loves to watch Za’Mierah play basketball and encourages Za’Layah to be brave. She tells them to be kind to other people and to be content with what they have.

“Hopefully, they grow up to be more than what I dreamed I could be when I was their age. I want them to get a career and be able to take care of themselves and not have such a rough life,” she said.

It wasn’t until Nolder was 13 years old that she saw a picture of her mother and found out Helen was white. She made copies of the photos her sister had of their mother, and they are her most prized possessions.

Said Nolder, “I take pictures with my kids all the time. One of the reasons why is that if something happens to me, my kids will have so many memories and pictures of me, and it will show how much I love them and wanted them in my life. I wish I could have had the chance to get to know my mom, to talk to her about what was going on when I was a teenager. I never got to say I loved her.”

Besides the girls, there has been another presence in Nolder’s life: Edwards, whom she met when she was 16.

Edwards is a nursing student and high school basketball coach who regularly attends Apostolic Christian Temple in Washington and has encouraged Nolder to go back to school. He, too, had legal issues nine years ago, but said he has put his faith in God, and those problems are in the past.

He sees an upward rise in the family fortunes.

“It was rough when she didn’t have anywhere to go,” Edwards said. “She was floating from place to place and the girls missed her. She saw them as much as she could.

“I love her so much. She is all about the family. She’s had to overcome so much. I believe our family is going to be successful and that she’s going to get something better.”

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