At 9 years old, Mississippi girl was primary caregiver for mom

Published 9:00 am Sunday, July 1, 2018

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — At the age of 9, Joi Stevens didn’t have time for Barbies or sleepovers: She was the primary caregiver for her mother, Annie, who’d returned fully disabled from serving as an Army medic in Afghanistan.

Joi went with her mom to doctor’s appointments, made sure she took her medicine. She dressed her wounds. She vacuumed, did the dishes, washed clothes, shopped for groceries. She completed a lot of homework assignments in hospital rooms while her mother recovered from knee and ankle surgeries.

“I was so naïve about war,” says Joi, who grew up in San Antonio. “When my mother’s (Army Reserve) unit was being deployed to Afghanistan, I was about 7. I remember writing her a note and saying, ‘Have fun on your trip.’ “

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Now 23, Joi recently completed her first year of law school at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. She received her undergraduate degree at North Carolina’s Davidson College.

Her education hasn’t cost her a dime, thanks to No Greater Sacrifice — a nonprofit that funds the college educations of children of service members who have been killed or wounded in combat post-9/11.

NGS scholarships are available across the U.S. — including Mississippi. Executive director Rebekah Lovorn, a Vicksburg native, is working to “get the word out to all states that this opportunity is here for the children and families who have already paid a huge sacrifice to our country.”

Joi knew rough times before her mother went to war.

Her parents divorced when Joi was 4.

“That put a really big financial strain on my mom,” Joi says. “She worked two jobs — and sometimes that wasn’t enough.”

For several months, Joi and her mom often slept in their car or in a friend’s spare bedroom.

“That experience made us both tougher,” Joi says. “And watching my mother go through so much pain and the surgeries . it’s taught me that we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it.

“We’ve made the most of our situation.”

While Annie was overseas, Joi stayed with families from their church.

“That was such a blessing because it allowed me to keep the friends I’d made,” she says. “But I remember that they would never turn on the news. They didn’t want me to see anything about the war going on.”

Her mom had always stressed education.

“She didn’t say, ‘One day, I hope you can go to college.’ No, she always said, ‘One day, you are going to college.’ She was determined for me to have a better life than she’s had.

“My mom is the one who found out online about NGS and told me to apply.”

Joi calls her mom “my best friend” and “my hero.”

“She’s doing better health-wise,” Joi says. “We just take it day by day.”

And when it came time to leave home for college — 1,200 miles away — “I think I may have had a harder time than my mom.” Joi says.

“It was inspiring that she never asked me to stay with her and to make that my life. She said, ‘Go. Chase your dreams. I’ll be your biggest supporter.’ “

Joi spoke to an audience of about 100 in Washington D.C.

“I wanted to put a face to NGS,” Joi says. “I wanted them to see that any checks they write are going to young people who are trying to better themselves — and maybe need a little help doing so.”

Retired Army Col. Henry Moak, Chief Accountability Officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security since April 2017, is leading local efforts to promote NGS.

“NGS is an organization that runs efficiently and keeps expenses to the bare minimum,” says Moak, a graduate of Murrah High School in Jackson. “That was the major drive for my wife (Joyce) and me to make an ongoing commitment to give and raise money consistently for this worthy cause.”

Moak and friends came up with the idea of promoting NGS in Mississippi through the world’s most common language — music — and the story of those such as Joi Stevens.