By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Natalie met Perry Mayer when she was 16 years old. He was grown -- 25 years of age. They both worked at the Diplomat Mall -- she in a drug store, he in one of the department stores. It was storybook stuff. "He looked at me, and it was like a light sparked," she remembers. Later that year, Natalie became pregnant with Perry's child. She stayed in school throughout the pregnancy and after the birth of Rolando in 1981. She graduated from Hallandale High School in 1982.
Through the births of Eduardo in 1984, Armando in 1985, Fernando in 1989, and Raven in 1991, Natalie stayed crazy about Perry. She came of age with the desperate hope of a woman whose man won't commit. After the birth of Raven, now age ten, Natalie gave Perry an ultimatum. He had one year. Then she wanted to get married or it was over. When the year was up, Perry said he still wasn't willing to marry his sure thing. It was hard; she wavered, but Natalie knew she had to move on.
She'd been doing the lion's share of raising the boys anyway. "Perry would come by and conversate with them," she says. "But he wasn't involved the way I thought he should be." Finally reached at his dentist's office, Perry promised to call back but didn't.
Natalie says she raised her kids by the book. She began taking parenting classes when pregnant with Rolando and continues taking a weekly class today. After the birth of each child, she temporarily went on welfare. Then she found jobs -- as a telephone operator, church secretary, data entry clerk for Atlas Pen and Pencil, and clerk at South Florida State Hospital. She thought working set a good example for the boys. In 1992, she took a temporary job as a teacher's aide at Colbert Elementary School (which her children attended), earning $5.55 an hour. They were a close family, she remembers. Her employer was impressed, and she was offered a permanent position that July. "It is a pleasure having her," Principal Kathleen DiBona wrote in May 1992. Natalie also worked in an after-school program at the Hollywood YMCA. "That way, I could have my children with me," she says. Natalie stayed in the school system for ten years, working her way into her current position as a community liaison for Watkins Elementary, earning $13.50 an hour.
She made mistakes too. In 1992, she cashed a series of welfare checks she shouldn't have received, totaling $2917. She had failed to report income from the YMCA. She was charged with felony welfare fraud in 1995. She pleaded no contest and was placed on probation for five years. The court ordered her to pay $93.62 a month in restitution. It was tough. "I struggled," she says. But she paid it back.
In 1995, Natalie moved her family one step closer to the American Dream -- into a house of her own in a middle-class black neighborhood on NW Fifth Avenue. The four-bedroom place was one of five Habitat for Humanity homes built on the street. Natalie hammered nails and painted walls of other Habitat houses on the street. The construction represented more than just her dream. It represented hope for the northwest community, which had weathered its share of the crack-cocaine epidemic in the early '90s. All of the homebuyers had grown up poor in Cornbread Alley. Now, they were first-time owners, investing sweat equity in return for no-interest mortgages.
It was a good time for the Wiggins family, despite Natalie's arrest. Rolando was the quarterback and Eduardo played defense on a Hallandale Optimists' youth football team. Natalie was involved as well, volunteering as the team secretary. Soon, the boys' sports pals began dropping by after school to toss a football and play video games. It got so there were 10 to 15 extra kids at the house every day. Natalie was happy to have them. "I called my house the after-school program," laughs Natalie. "But at least I knew where my children were."
She put up a basketball hoop, and the extra kids became part of the Wigginses' extended family. "She was the mother to the whole neighborhood," Betty Crawford observes. Some of the boys didn't have parents engaged in their lives. Natalie filled the gap. When report cards came out, she would cook something and have a little celebration. The boys would bring their grades for her to review. "I guess that tells you something if they were bringing me their report cards," she asserts.
Love, who asked that only his nickname be used in this article, was one of the youths welcomed into Natalie's home. (Sensitive that outsiders regard the '80s Babies as a criminal street gang, most of the young men who hang around the Wiggins house hesitated to talk to New Times, despite Natalie's urging.) Rolando and Love became friends at Colbert Elementary. They played football together on the Optimist team. After steadfastly refusing to talk, even about Natalie, the burly Hallandale High football star blurts out, "She's my god mom."
Recently, Natalie helped Love fill out applications for college. He expects to receive a football scholarship soon. "Whenever I had a problem," Love says, "I would come to her."