Cleaning up her act
She vacuums. She mops. She takes out the trash. She re-aligns chairs after a day of classes.
Year round, Erickah Slaughter arrives on campus at 6 p.m. but doesnt leave until 2:30 a.m. Its takes about an hour just to pick up trash bags in the 67 offices on the second floor of Cooper Hall and dump them into her cart.
As the senior custodian, Slaughter, 31, has to make sure the facility is clean and that the other custodial workers are on track to finish their duties on the other three floors.
Every now and then, she peeks at her smartphone to check if her teenage son has contacted her, but continues her multitasking.
During her break, from 9:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Slaughter heads back to her home 10 minutes away from USF to see her mom, girlfriend and son. Then she heads back to work.
She made a promise to them that she swore to keep.
A Troubling Detour
As a child, Slaughter was close to her father. He was funny, comforting and a listener, she said.
I (could) go to him about anything, she said. Even if you were having a bad day, he would just say something and make you laugh. He kept us together.
She began writing poetry at the age of 13 a passion she said filtered her emotions. When she was 14, her father suffered a heart attack and stroke at age 53. As a truck driver, he was moved to a desk job.
Soon after, Slaughter found out she was pregnant.
She was terrified to tell her mother, and wore her younger brothers extra-baggy clothing and tried to stay at a friends house as often as she could.
I actually hid my pregnancy for six months, and the reason why was because I heard my cousin got pregnant and her mom made her get an abortion, she said. My mom didnt make me get an abortion. She was upset, but for the most part she accepted that we work together (so) that I finish school.
She chose to keep her now 15-year-old son, Devon Slaughter, whom she calls beautiful.
But Devons father, she said, disappeared after she gave birth. He was supposed to visit Devon once after he was born, but never showed up. She said she never heard from him again.
The only thing I would say to him is that, Youre missing out, Erickah said.
When she was 16, Erickahs father suffered a second heart attack and second stroke, which permanently paralyzed the left side of his body. He was let go from his job.
Erickahs mother, who worked as a USF custodian in the dorms at the time, paid the bills she could but couldnt keep up with the mortgage.
As a result, the family of five was evicted from their home.
Erickah and her family, with six-week-old Devon in tow, had to stay at a homeless shelter. All they had was the clothing on their backs a new outfit meant swapping with a family member. Her brother took the lead in caring for their father, clipping his toenails and shaving his beard, but her father didnt want to burden them and moved into a nursing home by the end of 1998.
He thought that he was burdening us, but really he wasnt, Erickah said.
For two years, Erickah visited him regularly. But one night, after a tiring day of work at Popeyes, she decided to cancel her visit and see her father the next day.
In the morning, she got a phone call. Her father had his third stroke and passed away.
Erickah was devastated, but also angry with herself.
I think it hurt so much because I was supposed to go see him that night, she said.
According to Hillsborough County Sheriff Office arrest reports, Erickahs first arrest was in 2002 for battery in domestic violence, obstruction and battery against a law enforcement officer. She had a fight with her girlfriend at the time, who called the police, though Erickah said it was only a minor argument and she didnt serve any jail time. She was 22.
Later that year, she had a dream.
She opened up a bag. Inside was a brand new pair of Air Jordans and a cell phone.
It rang and I picked it up and I heard his laugh, she said. He said, You did good kid, you did good.
It was her fathers voice.
A year later she dreamt of her father again, where he was paralyzed lying down in a pair of new alligator shoes.
It finally dawned on me that the path that I was taking in life was not right, she said. I was getting in trouble. I was missing out on my sons life. I need a new direction. I need new shoes He opened my eyes and he let me know that he is still proud of me. I didnt hurt him.
Though the dream helped her forgive herself for not seeing her father the day he died, Erickah was still getting into trouble. In 2003, Erickah gave her mother temporary custody of Devon to ensure that he wasnt taken away by the state.
Over the next four years, Erickah was arrested four more times for multiple battery charges, criminal mischief and escape from police custody.
Once, Erickah was charged with throwing a deadly missile at or within the presence of a police officer, according to police reports. The weapon, she said, was a box of hashbrowns.
In total, Erikah has spent about 10 months in jail. She has been homeless and lived in hotels. In 2006, she was put on probation for three and a half years and moved in with her sister and Devon. However, due to a mistake in her paperwork, she said, she went back in jail for three months.
Before leaving to serve her unexpected sentence, Erickah had one last thing to do.
She spoke to her son and said, I promise you that I will never leave you again.
She told her mother, This would be the last time.
And it was.
I talked to (Devon), Erickah said. I let him know I messed up. I let my anger determine a lot of my life and Im paying for it even now, because I have a record. I cannot take that back.
Devon hasnt held it against her.
She kept her promise to stay out of jail, he said. She taught me that, when I grow up, I should make better decisions.
When Swidish Blaise, 30, walked into the Popeyes that Erickah worked at on and off since she was a teenager, they caught each others eyes. They exchanged numbers that day and soon began dating.
When we got together she had probably been on probation for years, Blaise said. It was just something in the system and it became her belief that was all she was worth. It was a hard time.
For five years, Blaise said she saw Erickah put on a tie and dress shoes numerous times to jump on the bus and go to job interviews, only to come home rejected.
Then, two years ago, an employer saw her arrest record but decided to give her a chance anyway.
By grace of God, USF came along and asked for her rap sheet, Blaise said. They gave her a job. Three years ago you couldnt tell me that she had a job.
New shoes, new path
A year ago, when Erickah was promoted to senior custodian, there were eight custodians in Cooper Hall two for each floor, including herself.
Now there are four total.
Its really a struggle sometimes, she said. But they work hard. They come in here every day and they give 100 percent.
Erickah holds a temporary position, which means no paid holidays, vacation or sick time, and hopes to be hired into a staff position. It would be less pay, but it would mean not having to fall behind financially during the holidays.
Erickah is paid $9.50 per hour for 40 hours a week.
After bills, it leaves her with about $450 every month, but the money can dry up quickly.
A few months ago, Erickahs car was stolen and taken to a chop shop. In the car were two notebooks full of her poems. Some she had copies of. Others were lost forever.
She had to save up for a new car and is currently behind on her $30 water bill.
Though Erickah earned her GED, she hopes to return to school to get a degree in counseling and human services.
I need this job, though, she said. The job is going to pay the bills, not school.
Every school night, she continues her routine check on the other three custodians and clean up after all the students and employees leave the building.
By 2:30 a.m., she walks away from Cooper Hall and goes home to her family.
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