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A Black family in Maryland is navigating the economic strain

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

High inflation, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, grown children moving back home - issues that remind us how for all the ways that we're different, Americans have a lot in common right now. Today, NPR's Alana Wise reports on how one Black family keeps perspective and thrives during these times.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

TYRONE FERRENS: Shut up, shut up.

ALANA WISE, BYLINE: A fluffy white handful of a dog greets visitors at the Ferrens house.

T FERRENS: This is the only biological child we have together. His name is Ashe Ferrens.

WISE: Tyrone Ferrens and his family are a tightly knit blended group. Between Ferrens and his wife, Michele, the family has six children.

T FERRENS: I have two, and my wife has four. And so we're like the real-life Brady Bunch.

WISE: Since the start of the pandemic, two of the couple's adult children have returned home. The children saw their finances stunted by the pandemic while it energized their parents' professional growth. Michele had been a retired respiratory therapist. When the pandemic hit, she found her expertise in high demand.

MICHELE FERRENS: They were offering large amounts of money for people to come to these hospitals, but it was out of necessity.

WISE: But the money alone wasn't enough to put Michele in harm's way.

M FERRENS: You have to believe in something. You have to have a love for it and a heart for people to do it. It's not money that gets you to go and do things.

WISE: While Michele worked the front lines, she and Tyrone came up with a plan.

T FERRENS: While she was doing that and I was doing the things that I was doing, we could afford to build this home, our forever home.

WISE: Tyrone Ferrens picked up extra shifts for his work as an electrician. He worked over 115 hours in two recent pay periods.

T FERRENS: Just gave me less time to miss her. It was a lot of sacrifice because I would see my wife once, one weekend, every two months, and while she's gone, I'd just work because there became a lot of opportunities for overtime.

WISE: The family's success is a far cry from where he started his life. Ferrens spent years of his early adult life selling and addicted to drugs. That time saw him land in correctional facilities across the country. He estimates he's been arrested about a dozen times over the years, spending about a year and a half incarcerated.

T FERRENS: It changes the way you view everything. My dog goes to the groomer, and he's in a cage for an hour, I get upset. I just - it's such a miserable experience.

WISE: Ferrens outlines his once-bleak reality from his bespoke home in Maryland. The six-bedroom, five-bath house with a pool and two ponds in the backyard was built during the pandemic, a testament to the Ferrens' financial success. After his last stint of incarceration, a six-month bid for felony assault in 2007, Ferrens had an awakening.

T FERRENS: When I got released, I was determined because I had sons that I didn't want to continue in that line. I wanted to change my life.

WISE: Tyrone Ferrens was trained in the Navy as an electrician. He was dishonorably discharged after a failed drug test. But since getting clean, he reconnected with his teenage love, Michele. They share their new home with Ferrens's mother, two children and one grandson.

T FERRENS: I think it's just made me aware of how fortunate I am, to be honest with you, because the things that my mother sees that would impact her - she's on a fixed income. So when you raise the price of milk or a half a pound of bacon, it affects her.

WISE: Tyrone makes sure his mother, Patricia, has everything she needs. That includes costly dental work. The family's children have also needed extra support during the economic downturn. Again, Michele Ferrens.

M FERRENS: We get calls weekly - seriously - just for gas, you know, like, and they haven't had to do that before. You know, it is scary because we don't know what's coming - I mean, how long we can keep it up.

WISE: Issues like this and his time behind bars inspired Tyrone Ferrens to become politically active. The Justice Department says that more than 650,000 people like Ferrens are released from prison each year. Unlike Ferrens, many of those returning citizens will be rearrested within three years of their release.

T FERRENS: Everyone deserves a second chance because you make a bad decision, you do your time - I mean, at some point you've paid your debt.

WISE: Tyrone Ferrens was able to take advantage of opportunities to put him on the right path, opportunities he says others should be afforded as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Mr. Ferrens, you may begin.

WISE: He testified in 2017 to the House Ways and Means Committee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

T FERRENS: It bothers me because I feel as though my son and my children are still paying for that mistake in regards to the opportunities that I have that would affect their lives and our living situation.

WISE: His two children at home are now both training to become licensed electricians.

ANDRE LEE: I would just see him at work, and I would just be amazed by, like, the amount of things he would talk about or the amount of things we would see or people we would, like, motivate to be doing what we're doing.

WISE: Andre Lee is Ferrens's 22-year-old son. The two aren't blood-related, but they share an undeniable bond.

LEE: Although he is my stepfather, he is my real father at the end of the day, because of what he's done for me in my life. It's because of him that I can call myself a man and be proud of it.

WISE: Lee lost his job a year ago at a juvenile correctional facility. He says he was racially targeted. He gives this example.

LEE: There was a CO that literally said, as I'm getting checked in - she was like, you look like you're supposed to be in here.

WISE: He filled in the gaps of losing his job, picking up work at McDonald's and DoorDash. But when Lee's roommate lost his job, Lee made the difficult choice to move back home.

LEE: I felt like I failed. I felt like I didn't do what I was supposed to do with the opportunity that I was given.

WISE: Lee now rents out that house, a property that he had bought from his dad. Ferrens said his daughter Regina lives on the basement level.

T FERRENS: That was going to be my man cave down there. We got a 100-inch screen that comes down. You know, it was going to be my man cave thing, but, you know, kids need a place to stay. That's far more important than a man cave.

WISE: The family keeps perspective. Michele continues her work in health care. Lee does volunteer work for the less fortunate, and Tyrone Ferrens is a passionate advocate for human rights, including things like banning the box for returning citizens. The family will vote in the midterm elections, motivated by issues that impact their loved ones most.

Alana Wise, NPR News, Aberdeen, Md.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.