They first saw each other in 2012, outside the Forestville mall. Kelfa Taylor hadn’t planned what exactly he was going to say to Maria McNair if she agreed to speak with him — “I was just gonna go, just think of something to keep her busy and maybe go out,” he recalled with a chuckle recently — but, as it happened, she wasn’t interested in talking.
Kelfa was more successful the next time he tried to strike up a conversation at the mall. He got Maria’s phone number, they texted and talked, they went on one date, then another. Eventually they became a couple, inseparable.
More than a couple, actually. There was Maria’s young son, Desmond, and Kelfa’s son, Kamari.
They found an apartment in Southeast Washington in 2013 and made plans to move in together. The weekend of the move, Kelfa got a call at the McDonald’s that he managed.
“They said my son, he passed away,” Kelfa said.
Kamari had been beaten to death by the boyfriend of the 4-year-old’s mother.
Many tribulations would follow, lost jobs among them, but through it all one thing was constant: “She was there with me,” Kelfa said of Maria. “She was there through everything. Through ups, downs, she was there. . . . It would have been easy for her just to leave me. She didn’t do that. She stayed by my side.”
And so did Community of Hope, a charity that aids homeless families in the District and is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.
Kelfa and Maria are both 26 now. I met them at Community of Hope’s main office in Southwest after they had gotten off work. Kelfa works at a restaurant in the Pentagon. Maria is a driver for a MetroAccess contractor. Desmond, 5, was busy coloring. So were Kelfa and Maria’s two boys: Ziyhir, 2, and Khalil, 19 months.
After Kamari’s death, the couple lived in a series of apartments, never too long in any one because money was so tight. Then, in 2015 they hit what Kelfa called “rock bottom.”
“I told Desmond that we were living in a hotel,” Maria said.
It was really the city’s troubled family shelter at D.C. General.
“These boys would never leave my sight,” Kelfa said. The family lived there for three months, and every day they were determined to figure out how to leave.
Kelfa and Maria were able to secure a subsidized apartment through a District program called rapid rehousing. With their situation relatively stable, they started to plan for the future. That’s where Community of Hope came in.
“They both have always, from the very beginning, shown a deep commitment to increasing their income,” said Sheldon Good, Community of Hope’s employment and adult education team coordinator.
Sheldon was among the Community of Hope counselors who met weekly with Maria and Kelfa to help them examine their options. Within two months, Maria had landed her job, following up on a tip Sheldon provided. In August, Kelfa started at his job.
“I sent him a lead, and he ran with it,” Sheldon said.
Kelfa is planning to go back to school in January for pharmacy studies. Long term, he’d like to run his own business.
“I appreciate everything Sheldon has done,” Maria said.
I mentioned that most of the families I meet are headed by single mothers who struggle alone with their children.
“It’s not going to work like that,” Kelfa said. “It’s all about the kids. Once you have the kids, it’s not about you and what you want to do.”
It’s not easy for Maria and Kelfa to talk about their time at the shelter. It’s embarrassing, not how they see themselves.
“The only thing I’m proud to say is that we did stand beside each other,” Kelfa said. “No matter what we went through, no matter what decisions we made, we made them together. We made it work. It takes two.”
Both have Thursday off work — “Paid,” Kelfa happily pointed out — and they know what they’ll be doing.
“Turkey and macaroni, sweet potatoes, a couple other things,” Maria said, listing the things she’ll cook.
They’ll spend Thanksgiving the way they like it: as a family, together.
Community of Hope is among the local nonprofit organizations The Washington Post has partnered with this holiday season. Said Sheldon, the charity’s employment czar: “People often come to me and say, ‘I need you to help me find a job.’ I can’t exactly do that. I can give you the resources and tools to do that.”
Your tax-deductible contribution can help provide those resources, help a parent find a job, help keep a family together. To give online, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to “Community of Hope” and mail it to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, D.C., 20032.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.