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The color of acceptance: Wildwood family 'adopts' deseg student from city

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 10, 2009 - David and Alice Grainger weren't trying to change the world when they invited a child from St. Louis to spend the night at their suburban home several years ago. They simply were trying to please their own child, Dennis, who had asked if the well-mannered, brown-eyed kid could sleep over. In time, however, the Graingers realized that this frequent visitor needed a lot more than a room for the night. He needed a home. Their decision to provide one brought the world of black and white, St. Louis and suburbia a little closer.

The Graingers live in Wildwood; the kid who spent the night was Antonio Evans, an African-American growing up in a troubled family in the area around Tower Grove Park in St. Louis.

In time, Evans would become a permanent member of the Grainger household, living with the family from grades 7 through 12. He had been held back one year when he began school in St. Louis and was 19 when he graduated from Eureka High School last spring. He's now attending a junior college in Arizona on a football scholarship.

A passion for sports

David Grainger is a bank examiner, and Alice Grainger is in sales. Evans met the Graingers around 2000 when attending Ridge Meadows Elementary School in the Rockwood District as part of the area's city-county desegregation program. Their bond is one example of what the school desegregation program can mean to race relations.

In middle school, Alice Grainger could see that Evans loved football, and she began to appreciate what that love and commitment meant to a kid in the desegregation program -- also known as the Voluntary Transfer program. Among other things, being a transfer student meant spending hours on buses or in cabs back to his home in St. Louis after games, long after children who lived with the district district had already settled in for the night.

"They'd get on the bus and wouldn't be home till 10:30 and sometimes 11 o'clock," Alice Grainger said in an interview. "That's just terrible because they'd have to be up so early the next morning to get back out here."

'A Hard Home Life'

As she got to know Evans better, Alice Grainger discovered that his home life was far from ideal.

"Antonio had had a very hard life at home," she remembers. "By the time he got to middle school, his mother was having some serious problems. He was kind of placed with relatives, and I didn't know where he was on weekends."

At that point, she and her husband began talking about making a long-term commitment to Evans.

"We wondered what would it be like just to have him live here with us. How would that be possible? We got the support of the Rockwood District and counselors. They helped tremendously with him."

Evans is the oldest of seven children, five boys and two girls, born to La Vonna Perkins, who was not married. Perkins explained in an interview that she had always tried to "keep a roof over our head" but that she suffereds from bouts of depression. For that reason, Perkins said, she decided, at the request of Evans about six years ago, to let him live elsewhere.

"Antonio came to me and asked if he could stay with Dennis," she said. "I always wanted him home, but it was like a lot of things going on, not good things, and I decided it would be best for him to stay out there. I think that the choice he made to live out there helped to make him a good person."

Perkins added that some of her acquaintances objected to the move. "I had lots of people putting bad things in my head about him going to live out there, but I didn't let any of that stick in my head because I felt this would help Antonio."

She added that going "through a deep depression" also meant not seeing Evans and missing his football except "a couple of times." But she says she's excited and happy that he is now in college.

Now, she's in a down mood though, saying she's still recovering from her mother's death last year.

"I'm the baby of 11 children," says Perkins, 38. "Our family is not close, and so my mother was all I had, and I lost her. I'm still trying to pick back up from that."

Color Was Never An Issue

Neither Evans nor the Graingers said they thought much about skin color even at the start of their relationship. Evans said it was easy for him to move in with the Graingers because he'd been a guest, on an off, at their brick home in West County for much of his life.

"I used to go there all the time to see Dennis," Evans says. "We had classes together, and I ended up living with him most of my life."

Asked how he felt about moving in with a white family, far from his own, Evans said, "I didn't see it that way." He says the Graingers "are like family to me. They accepted me. They also made it clear that I could always go home."

One indication of how Alice Grainger feels about Evans is the way she corrects anyone who mentions that she has four children. "Five with Antonio," she says.

"Antonio was no problem for us at all. Plus, I already had had four (children), so one more wouldn't make a difference. Three of the kids already were out of school, pretty much on their own. They didn't think of Antonio as a house guest. They think of him as their brother."

However, she admits to mild reservations at the beginning because she was uncertain how well Evans would adjust. But, she says, "The transition was easy, because we started with him when he was very young. I think that was the key."

She says Evans "just melted into the family, and everybody accepted him in the neighborhood." But she also notes that he required guidance.

"We had to teach him a lot of things," she said. "How to show up for school every day, do laundry, make his bed. We paid for his clothing, for most of his shoes and we fed him. His mother hadn't taken him many places. We took him on vacations with us, and any birthday presents he got, we paid for."

She stressed that "Antonio was treated like any other kid in the family, with the same rules and curfews. If he would get into trouble like Dennis would, he'd grounded just like everybody else. Those were the rules."

As for his going away to college, she says, "Emotionally, it's killing me. We have a son more than 300 miles away. We can't go there to see him play or whatever."

Roughly 172,000 children attend schools in St. Louis and in 23 districts in St. Louis County. About 80,000 of those children are African-American and roughly 5,000 are enrolled in the desegregation program. The Rockwood School District, where Evans attended schools, enrolls roughly 21,000 students. About 11 percent of them -- roughly 2,500 -- are black. Many, like Evans, are there because of the desegregation program.

Alice Grainger, who has been active in the district's PTO, has always had a positive attitude toward that program and to parents willing to go the extra mile to accommodate children from St. Louis -- whether by offering them a bed for the night or a life lesson they might have missed when growing up. She says it wasn't unusual for transfer students to spend the night or a week with a family in the district but that few couples had taken in a child permanently the way her family had. 

"We enjoyed every minute of Antonio."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.