Sisters Chantale and Francesca McCall were both raising large families. Chantale and her husband, Rance Martin, had five children, and Francesca had seven of her own. The two families often came together at Chantale’s home in Selma, Alabama, or Francesca’s home in Birmingham. With twelve children, the gatherings were sometimes loud and always loving.
“She was a loving mother, fun-loving,” says Franscesca of her sister. “She was a good mother. She was always a giver, always gave back. She made you laugh no matter what you were going through, always making you laugh.”
Like their mother and grandmother before them, Chantale and Francesca both worked in healthcare: in hospitals, nursing homes, and homes. Perhaps it brought clarity about mortality: caring for so many people at the ends of their lives. They understood that tragedy could strike.
“We always had the conversation, if anything ever happened to one of us, what would we want to have happen with our kids?” says Chantale. “We didn’t want them to be separated.”
So the sisters made a pact. If something were to happen to either one of them, the other sister would take in their children and raise them as their own. It wasn’t an idle promise. Tragically, their promise had been prescient.
On the Front Lines of the Pandemic
As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the nation, Chantale continued her essential work caring for her elderly home healthcare patients. Despite heightened infection protection measures, she contracted COVID-19. She became very ill, and, on September 16, 2020, at the age of 34, she died. Her husband Rance was also infected with COVID-19, and, on October 25, he also died. Their five children had lost both of their parents in just over a month.
In the midst of her grief over losing her sister, Francesca well remembered her promise. There was no hesitation. She brought all of Chantale’s children to live with her. Twelve children all living under one roof — all the boys in one room, all the girls in another — raised by Chantale and her mother, who also lives with them.
“It’s been hard,” says Francesca, “just the different personalities. As you put them together, not enough space… the kids have their good days and days when everybody wants their own space. Typical teenage stuff. But the older kids, they do help out a lot.”
The Church Steps In to Help
Carla McDonald’s father was for many years the leader of West End Purity Holiness Church. Today her brother leads it, and Carla is active in the church’s community support and outreach. Francesca McCall and her family were long-time members of the church, so Carla soon became aware of their tragedy and the challenges now facing Francesca.
“I told my daughter, ‘Well, we need to sponsor this family for Christmas,’” says Carla. “We started shopping, but we were not even touching the surface to meet their needs.”
So Carla and her daughter Raven set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to support the family, and they started spreading the word about the family’s needs.
“Somebody needs to hear this story,” Carla said. “This child needs help, more than she can imagine. This child has a story to tell.” So she began to tell it.
“When I put it out, typing it, sending it to the media, the media responded immediately,” says Carla. “Then it went hey-wow.”
The story was quickly picked up by the Birmingham and other area media. The family’s tragedy and the sisters’ promise sparked an outpouring of support. The story went national, even international. The GoFundMe campaign took off and, as of this writing, has raised more than $370,000 to help the family.
Fletcher Fund Learns of the Need
Christian Fletcher grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and played football in high school and college. While he now spends his days running Atlanta-based LifeBrite Hospital Group, he still likes to keep up on Alabama high school football news.
One day, he visited al.com, an Alabama news site, to see how his high school team at St. Paul’s Episcopal School was doing in the playoffs. “There was a top story on the landing page,” says Fletcher. “Normally I would have just scrolled past to get to the sports, but the headline captured me. Twelve children. Something about COVID-19. I never even made it to the sports page.”
Fletcher had lost his own father when he was very young. He and his wife, Amber Fletcher — the COO of LifeBrite Hospital Group — are now raising their own four children. “This could be my children,” thought Christian. “This could be me or Amber, or anyone I know and love. Tragedy can strike anyone. None of us are immune to it. I felt compelled and moved to do something.”
Christian immediately made a donation to the GoFundMe campaign, but it didn’t feel to him like enough.
“It’s one thing to be supportive in the short term,” he says, “but when you look at the age range of the children, they’re going to need a lifetime of support. I knew I needed to do more than the GoFundMe donation.”
Christian contacted Fletcher Fund Executive Director Curtis Moorer and asked him to reach out to the family and see how they could help.
What Else Can We Do?
Moorer contacted Carla McDonald and asked how the Fletcher Fund could help the McCall family. Because Christmas was just around the corner, McDonald first mentioned a Christmas gift list for all twelve of the children.
“Send me the list,” said Moorer, then he reached out to his contacts in Birmingham’s charitable motorcycle clubs. (Moorer, who rides a Harley-Davidson cruiser these days, is active in this community.) “They said, ‘Don’t worry about the Christmas list. We’ll get it.’”
So Moorer called McDonald back and asked what else the Fletcher Fund could do. According to Moorer, she replied, “Curtis, these folks need a house, they need furniture, and some of the older kids will soon need to go to college.”
Moorer conferred with Christian and Amber Fletcher, who told him, “Whatever we can do.”
The GoFundMe campaign had by now raised enough to get the family well on the way to affording a larger house more appropriate to the size of the family. The motorcycle club community got to work searching for a house, and the Fletcher Fund pledged to pay for furnishing the children’s rooms.
The Fletcher Fund also preemptively awarded full scholarships to the three oldest children: 17-year-old Zaria and 15-year-old De-Alvion, Chantale’s oldest children, and Francesca’s oldest, 15-year-old Lakeria. As with all Fletcher Fund scholarships, the support will extend well beyond tuition to include living and travel expenses, plus mentorship of all three young adults throughout their college years and beyond.
The Importance of Education
“Education was very important to Chantale,” says Francesca. “She was actually back in school herself. She wanted to be a social worker.” Francesca had also gone to college, graduating in 2016 as a certified nursing assistant.
She is very clear with all twelve children about the importance of education. “They are going to college, no ifs ands or buts. That’s my rule in the house: everybody goes to college.”
The Fletcher Fund scholarships, she says, were “a major relief. I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to do that when it comes time for them to go to college.”
The older children are already making plans and dreaming big about their futures without worrying how they’ll afford their education.
“I want to be a lawyer and be in business too,” says 15-year-old Lakeria McCall. “I like to talk a lot.”
“She’s a debater,” says Francesca. “She always wants to be right. She’s very smart and has the makings of being a great lawyer.”
Lakeria isn’t sure yet where she’ll go to college, but, knowing she has support for living expenses and travel, she’s considering colleges in Florida, Tennessee, and California. (Francesca hopes she’ll stay closer to home.)
De-Alvion, also 15, wants to keep playing basketball and football in college, but he’s also interested in science. “You can become an engineer or a doctor,” Francesca tells him. “Yes ma’am,” he replies.
Education is his “driving force,” says De-Alvion, “my defense against all the things in the world. I’m playing offense. I drive toward those goals.”
“I push them to be the best they can be,” says Francesca. “Push them through school, to college. Nobody can take that away from you.”
“This is a loving family,” says D-Alvion. “I enjoy it, getting closer than I ever was with them. As I grow and become a man, I’m growing with them so they can see I can achieve what I set my mind to. We know what we can be.”
Empathy and Support for the Long Struggle of Grief
Moorer, Christian Fletcher, and Amber Fletcher traveled to Birmingham to present the scholarships to the children. “As long as I’ve been a principal,” says Moorer, “all the speeches I’ve given… I got choked up about them. The smiles those kids had on their faces when they arrived. They were so grateful. They were crying the whole time.”
“They’re a very loving family,” says Christian, who told them about losing his own father when he was young, told them about his own struggles, how he had coped, and how he had found support.
“I remember when I lost my father at that young age, it became tougher as life went on,” says Christian. “I looked to have certain conversations I would have had with my father. I was numb at first, then sad and even angry that he wasn’t there.
“I stressed to those children that it’s normal to feel that range of emotions,” he says, “and that it’s normal to keep feeling them when it’s time for prom, graduation, getting married… all those events that you really wish your parents were there for. I told them that they’re not alone. I gave them my business card and told them they can pick up the phone anytime and speak to someone who has lost a parent.”
Christian is hopeful for the family but also clear eyed about the long-term support they’ll need. “They have an abundance of support, but when the news cameras leave and everyone else moves on with their lives, they’ll need support beyond the financial. If it’s anything like what I have gone through and continue to go through, this is their reality for years to come. We would like them to continue to contact us even beyond the scholarship period, whether it’s for material support or just a word of advice or encouragement. We’ll be there.”
“Francesca has an uphill battle ahead of her,” says Amber Fletcher. “I can’t imagine having to care for twelve children with the ages ranging so much. They each need her every single day for different reasons. That’s one of the reasons why it’s extremely important for us to be available beyond the giving ceremony. We’ll be there to offer guidance and a listening ear.”
Humanity is the Point
Support for education is often justified as an economic investment. A more educated citizenry can be more productive and create a stronger economy. Justice also argues for the benefits of that stronger economy to be more equitably shared. But ultimately, for the Fletcher Fund, humanity is the point.
“With the current political landscape, the partisanship divide, with people having sheer hate for one another,” says Christian, “we have to show each other genuine goodness. I feel sorry for the youth of today who can’t recall a sense of normalcy outside of what we’re seeing now. As humans, we have to show each other kindness. We have to reassure the children that there are good humans out there. There are genuine good human beings out there who can be successful and also be sensitive to other people.”
“One of the reasons we work so hard,” says Amber, “is to be able to provide this support for people.”
“I try to live my life treating people the way I would want to be treated,” Christian says. “We are blessed to have a platform and the means to be helpful.”