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Living on prayers, dreams

A single father tries to make the day-to-day math of his current life add up while he works on a business administration degree.

By JOHN PENDYGRAFT
Published May 6, 2007


What Javontae Wright's north St. Petersburg apartment lacks in furnishings, it makes up for in faith.

Faith fills the barren bedroom walls as Wright, a 24-year-old single parent, tries to cajole his 2-year-old daughter, Zi'Yhon, to sleep. She's having none of it.

"No more monkeys jumping on the bed," he sings to Zi'Yhon (pronounced Zion) in a tune that is half playful, half Dad Voice.

Faith and two large stuffed toys are all that fill the apartment's living room. He won the toys for her at the state fair.

"C'mon, give me a kiss and it's time to lay down." Now the tone is: Dad is tired and means what he's saying.

Faith fills the space between an eviction notice and a paycheck.

"Let's say our prayers. Then it's bedtime." The tone is now: That's an official Dad order.

Zi'Yhon knows about half of the Lord's prayer and most of the ABC song, and seems to think they belong together somehow. Dad helps fill the gaps, lifts her onto a pillow and starts patting her back.

"Paycheck to paycheck is no fun. You've got to make your bills meet your money and your money meet your bills. It's $40 to fill up my tank; her pull-ups will cost you at least $20 a week. Groceries, clothes, insurance -- it's never ending. After paying everything I may have $50 to stretch from the first to the 14th. That's $5 a day. Five dollars a day keeps the bad man away. At least it's some money in your pocket. It beats being in debt."

Zi'Yhon is squirming. Her eyes pop open and she starts giggling.

"When rent was due on the first and I couldn't pay it till the ninth I was getting worried. It's frustrating. When I get frustrated I pray more. In those times I have to pray hard. Prayer is powerful. It changes things.

"In April my rent was late. I had an eviction notice and the Lord stepped in right on time."

Zi'Yhon is off the bed, into the living room and back with one of the carnival toys, a stuffed Spider-Man nearly twice her size.

"It's a lot of pressure. I would like to take her out of town, take her to Disney or a nice vacation, something out of our routine, but I have to do everything on a budget. I would love to have more furniture for her. ...

"Someday I want to get her a three-bedroom, two-bath home. Most people want a mansion, a big two-story home. I just want a nice house with an education/playroom and a back yard with a little nature for her to play in."

Wright is a few semesters from a degree in business administration from St. Petersburg College. He usually takes nine hours a semester. He's worked as a teacher's assistant at Oak Park Middle School, and an account manager for a collection agency.

Through WorkNet, he recently took a job as a recreation counselor with the Police Athletic League. One day he hopes to open his own youth center to provide child care and after-school activities.

"Zi'Yhon! Put ... that ... toy ... back ... and ... get ... into ...bed!" Dad Voice With Pauses means business, and Zi'Yhon wobbles out of the room with Spider-Man. Back in bed, lying on Dad's chest, she can't stop fidgeting. Dad can hardly keep his eyes open.

"Man, I shouldn't have let her have pudding before bedtime."

John Pendygraft can be reached at jpendygraft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8050.

About this feature
Seventy percent of families in the United States say they live paycheck to paycheck. American savings are in the negative, the lowest level since the Great Depression. In the Tampa Bay area, the financial pressure for many is acute: Average wages are lower than comparable Sun Belt cities, and median home prices have doubled in a decade. Add a related surge in property taxes and insurance bills (not to mention higher gas prices) and the challenge to make ends meet is quickly becoming pervasive. It's not a fringe problem. It's your neighbor; it's us. Times photographer John Pendygraft is seeking stories that put a face behind the phenomenon.

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