Despite living by themselves since turning 19 in October, and walking to the jobs they have at Taco Bell, the fraternal twins are on track to graduate in May, and start the next chapter in a book that already has had many painful pages.
"Their lives have been anything but ordinary, but they are extraordinary young men who are respectful and never complain about anything," Decatur High business teacher Lee Lott said. To understand what Lott is talking about, go back to Middletown, Delaware, when divorce separated Jonathan, Stephen and their sister Cheyenne from their mother.
The twins said they have no childhood memories of their mother, and the only stories they got from their father were of conflict. "We were 2 or 3 when they separated, so we didn't know anything," Jonathan said. "It was like mom was there one day and gone the next."
Their father, who worked a security job at a plant, tried to care for them as best he could but was overwhelmed, the twins said. Stephen said they moved to several places, and children made fun of them because of hygiene "and just being poor."
"I failed first grade because I was so withdrawn," Stephen said.
Sent to orphanage
Jonathan and Stephen said they were 10 when a church recommended to their father that he send them and their sister to an orphanage in Tampa, Florida. "They just came and got us," Stephen said. "Now we didn't have our biological mother or father. My father told us later he sent us away because he was afraid the state would take us."
They were separated when they arrived at Hope Children's Home, a facility founded in 1968 to care for abandoned, abused, neglected and orphaned children from newborn to age 18. Jonathan said his year there was the loneliest of his life, and he often was punished because he couldn't keep up academically. He said he spent hours by himself in the cafeteria as punishment for things as simple as forgetting to brush his teeth.
The twins said they sneaked around security to see each other, but saw little of their sister because she was in a dorm for females. They talked on the telephone to their father, but both said they couldn't do so without an adult from the orphanage present. "I wouldn't dare tell how rough it was," Jonathan said.
Just as they were settling in to a life they had accepted as their normal, the brothers got a call from their mother, Jody Wozniak, who had remarried and was living in Decatur with her second husband, Matthew Wozniak. It was the first communication with her in almost eight years, but she said the words they wanted to hear: "I'm coming to get you."
Jonathan smiled, remembering the date: Feb. 17, 2007. That's when they left the orphanage. "Some dates you never forget," he said. There would be more dates to remember, too.
The twins said their mother's stories of why she had not seen them in almost a decade didn't match what their father said, but at that point, it didn't matter because "she said she wanted to give us a normal life," Stephen said.
The brothers and their sister finished elementary school at Julian Harris. Stephen and Jonathan attended Cedar Ridge Middle one month before Matthew and Jody Wozniak moved to Huntsville. They returned to Decatur almost two years later and enrolled the children at Oak Park.
"All of the moves were about trying to give us a normal family life," Jonathan said. "She told us that all the time." The family rented a home on Eighth Avenue Southeast. The siblings had friends and occasionally talked by telephone with their father, who was still in Delaware.
On Nov. 10, 2011, Stephen said his mother was crying a lot at home. He knew something was wrong, but said he didn't try to cheer her up. Jonathan kissed her on the jaw, told her he loved her and went to bed. They didn't have any special plans the following day because it was Veterans Day and school was out.
For some reason, Jonathan woke up early, about 6:55 a.m., he said. He walked into the living room and his mother was lying on the floor, motionless. She didn't respond to his calls. "It took me a while to react," Jonathan said. He called for his stepfather and went to his brother's room. "I just remember him telling me mom may be dead," Stephen said.
Matthew Wozniak performed CPR until paramedics arrived. Jody Wozniak had died of a heart attack. She was 37. "She had no life insurance, so we didn't have a funeral," Stephen said. "She was cremated. We really never got to say goodbye. I still feel guilty because I didn't give her a hug that night or try to cheer her up."
The brothers didn't share their story with many. They went back to school the next day, but were again searching for "a normal life," Stephen said.
They lived with their stepfather and tried to survive on a small Social Security check. When they were old enough to work, Stephen said he walked to Taco Bell on the Beltline once a week for about a year to eat and ask them about a job. He got the job 17 months ago, but when the brothers turned 19, their mother's Social Security ended. Jonathan took a job at Taco Bell on Sixth Avenue, and they left their stepfather's home late last year.
They didn't want to talk about the circumstances of their leaving, but the duo found an apartment near Oak Park. They continued to visit their stepfather to check on him and the pets they left behind, Jonathan said.
On Jan. 14, Jonathan said he had a strange feeling as he approached Matthew Wozniak's home. When he got in, he found his stepfather in a pool of blood and called 911. Wozniak accidentally shot himself in the leg and bled to death, according to Decatur police.
Jonathan and Stephen said they haven't had time to reflect or deal with all they have experienced. Stephen said he works full time to keep his mind occupied. Jonathan said he's alone, even when people are around, because he can't get the images of his mother and stepfather out of his head. "Most of the things, our family, where we live and everything, has been temporary," Jonathan said. "All we have is each other. That's the only guarantee I know."
A small light shined on their lives when a classmate saw Stephen walking home from work on the Beltline. Stephen shared parts of their story, and the student shared it with his mother. The mother knew Lott was a teacher at Decatur High and called her.
Lott said she was familiar with parts of the twins' situation because their sister had been in her class when their mother died. "No child should have to endure what they have," Lott said. "But through it all, they've learned to be very mannerly. They always look you in the eye and tell you they appreciate anything you do for them."
The sister left Decatur High before graduating and resides in Decatur, the brothers said. They have little contact with her, but said they love her very much. The sister, their father, who they said is in Delaware, and a grandmother they have heard about, but never met, are all the blood family Jonathan and Stephen said they know about.
Most of the people they call family now are co-workers at Taco Bell, a few classmates at Decatur High, and Lott, who regularly receives donations to help the brothers with rent, utilities and groceries.
They are ready to graduate so they can "start a real career," Stephen said. But leaving Decatur High means leaving the only family "we have now," Jonathan said. Both want to attend college, but "the only way we'll be able to go is if we qualify for a grant," Stephen said. "Surely we will," he asked. "Won't we?"
They said their grades may be an issue, because they are passing, but don't know if they will be good enough. Jonathan wants to study graphic design, something he's learning at Decatur High. Stephen said he wants to do something hands-on, something that will keep him busy. They have their stepfather's vehicle but don't drive it because neither has a license, nor can afford to buy the insurance to put it on the road.
Stephen said he'll continue walking to Taco Bell and school when friends can't give him a ride. Jonathan, who has been working about four months, said he'll do the same or ride his bicycle. They've learned not to plan too far in the future, because too many times the road around the corner has been different from what they expected.
The only thing either said they can guarantee is they will be there for each other. "We always have," Stephen said. "His love is the only thing that hasn't changed in my life."
Article courtesy of the Decatur Daily
View Jonathan Small's "Give Life a Try" video
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