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June 10, 2013

Local attorney celebrates 10 years of helping kids

By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer

Kaineeka Clark, her son and her niece and nephews were honored by Yatooma’s Foundation for the Kids June 2 with the foundation’s Bridge to the Future award. From top left are Marvin Williams, Kaineeka Clark, Frank McCray. Front left: DeLaneá Williams, Javon Williams and Andrew Williams.

BIRMINGHAM — He remembers it like it was yesterday.

It’s been 20 years since Norman Yatooma, of Bloomfield Hills, called home from college to talk to his dad, Manuel, only to learn that he wouldn’t be able to come to the phone again. Even two decades later, the attorney gets choked up thinking about the call.

“I was away at school in Indiana. I had just been elected student body president, and I was calling Dad to share the exciting news, and we never connected. We exchanged voice messages. And I was returning another call on March 11, and I heard my mom wailing in the background. Then I learned from my pastor that my Dad had been killed in an attempted car-jacking.”

The crime not only devastated Yatooma, his mother and the rest of his family, it also crippled them financially. Though his father was supporting their family while he was alive, in death, any savings he had quickly dissipated.

“It didn’t take more than six months after he died before it was all lost. We (neared) bankruptcy, foreclosure notices — everything that he had worked for was stolen, lost, seized, gone. We were living on school loans, and begged and borrowed money. It was an awful time.”

Yatooma overcame the unsolved tragedy, working to get through college and law school, and he eventually earned his place among some of metro Detroit’s most prominent attorneys at Norman Yatooma and Associates. In his career, he’s perhaps most known for representing the family of the late Tamera Greene in a lawsuit involving former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and alleged murder cover up. 

But in the midst of his success, Yatooma never forgot about his father, with whom he wasn’t able to share it. He vowed to do what he could to help kids who have experience the heartache he’s endured, because it’s what Dad would want him to do.

“When he died, there was no real exit period. He was healthy and vibrant one day and gone the next. So we just dove into everything he was doing and uncovered file cabinets of thank-you notes from people he had helped with a job or a car or house payments. People I didn’t know and had never heard of. All these folks around town that he had just helped,” said Yatooma.

On June 3, 2003, Yatooma officially launched Yatooma’s Foundation for the Kids in his dad’s honor. It was Father’s Day and more than 10 years since Manuel’s death. Yatooma, his wife and his family set out to give to kids who had lost a parent what they so desperately needed years ago: the financial and emotional support necessary to keep a family together in the face of unthinkable loss.

“We put together an organization to, frankly, help kids with what we needed and couldn’t find at that time. Financial help, grief counselors, tutors, groceries,” he said. “We started off like Dad did: very humble, small, homegrown. Before long, a few community giants grabbed hold of us and really helped us.”

And help, they did. Comcast Spotlight, CBS Outdoor and WJR offered advertising space to the foundation; Art Van Elselander, of Art Van Furniture stores, has donated furniture, event space and other resources; and local figures like Sandy and Tom Pierce, Lori and Van Conway, and James Hoffa have contributed to the cause.

Because of generous supporters and lots of fundraising, Yatooma’s Foundation has helped countless local children and their families get on their feet again.

Families like Kaineeka Clark, of Southfield, and her five children. Though Clark herself only had one son, she took in her sister, Maria’s, four kids when Maria  died of breast cancer in 2009. Clark was granted full guardianship since the father of her sister’s kids was killed the year before.

Even though Clark, 39, didn’t have the resources to care for a house full of children, there was never a doubt in her mind that she would take care of the niece and nephews her sister left behind.

“I wasn’t taking care of my sister’s kids because I wanted recognition or anything. I think this is what I was supposed to do. My sister’s kids (are) my kids and mine (are) hers, and that’s how it was,” said Clark. “I feel like I still have a part of my sister with me.”

Another agency referred Clark to the foundation when her nephew was having trouble handling his grief and began to act out.

“He really needed counseling bad. He was really angry and everything and depressed. There’s only so much I can do for him,” she said. “Once he got the counseling, his grades just went up. I told him, ‘I’m not going to give up on you. I know you’re angry and you miss your mom.’”

Clark said once she called Yatooma’s Foundation for the Kids, they immediately brought her in for a meeting. From there, her worries slowly began to subside. The foundation provided her and the kids with a spectacular Christmas for their first holiday without Maria, and they bought a bed for Clark’s niece when she didn’t have one. And then, just recently at the foundation’s 10-year celebration at The Townsend Hotel June 2, Clark was gifted a new vehicle, a new living room set, a vacation to Washington, D.C., and a check to cover her rent for the remainder of the year.

“You just don’t know how happy I am,” said Clark, who’s now working full-time and studying at Oakland Community College to become a nurse. “They do a lot of stuff for you, and I think (the kids) have a lot of opportunities now. After losing their mother and father, once they came to the foundation and they met other kids, they said, ‘Wow, it’s not just me. There’s other kids who lost their parents, too.’ They can talk to them and relate.”

For Yatooma, even one family helped is worth the 10 years of hard work running the foundation. Even so, he’s determined to help as many young people as he can. The foundation will continue to celebrate its anniversary all summer, culminating with its annual golf tournament at Orchard lake Country Club Sept. 16.

For now, the foundation continues to be run out of Yatooma’s Bloomfield Hills law firm. It’s a community organization based in his own community, where he works and lives, he said. But it’s his hope that the group’s efforts can eventually extend beyond the city and even metro Detroit. With more helping hands and giving hearts, that’s exactly what Yatooma’s Foundation for the Kids intends to do.

“That is certainly our goal. My real hope is that before I die, this charity will have a national reach. Kids losing a parent is not a unique southeastern Michigan epidemic. There’s no other charity that has comprehensive help for kids who have lost a parent, and one in 10 kids will lose a parent before they turn 18.”

For more information on Yatooma’s Foundation for the Kids, visit www.forthekidsfoundation.org.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at tesshaki@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1095.