HNN’s Weems is hungry for life
Kindergarten nap time. A rite of passage. One of those quaint shared experiences people talk about every now and then even as adults, a happy memory of childhood innocence.
But the concept will always remain foreign to Francesca Weems and her brother, Marcus.
"I didn’t have nap time. When I finally got to school other kids would talk about it, and I didn’t even know what kindergarten was," Francesca said. "We were sleeping in public bathrooms. Or a church or a school until we got kicked out. An apartment until we defaulted on the rent. In the backs of parked trucks at people’s residences, in hotel lobbies. At the airport."
While her peers attended preschool and kindergarten, Francesca and Marcus and their single mother, Angela, wandered aimlessly. Well, not really aimlessly since there was always the daily matter of finding food and shelter.
They were resourceful. Francesca said she and her brother would take bags from one store and fill them with food items at another. At the checkout stand, they’d buy a candy bar with the pennies they had and walk out with groceries "purchased" at the first store.
"They knew. But we were 5 and 8 years old," she said. "A lot of people had compassion."
If they needed to go somewhere, Angela might call an ambulance and say her daughter had "slipped and fallen down a hill."
It was survival.
Now, nearly 25 years later as adults, the siblings are thriving.
Francesca, who turns 29 on Monday, is a talented up-and-coming sports media personality whose first on-air appearance with Hawaii News Now is scheduled for April 13. Marcus, 32, is a captain in the Army. Both possess advanced college degrees, as well as an indefatigable work ethic and undauntable spirit.
Their success is against all odds and logic — until you meet them and get a feel for their resolve, intelligence, optimism and world view.
"Everyone has a chance in this world and it is up to the individual to determine what they want to do with their life," said Marcus, in an email from his post overseas.
While that statement is inspirational and true to some degree, statistics for products of the foster system like Francesca and Marcus indicate otherwise — making their achievements all the more remarkable. A study from the University of Washington’s school of social work found that less than 11 percent of children who have been in the foster system go on to college and other research says only 2.5 percent graduate. By comparison, 65.9 percent of all 2013 high school graduates were enrolled in college in October of that year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Homelessness and not attending school until they were 8 and 11 made the odds even worse for the Weemses. Francesca remembers being teased for her inability to read at age 9.
But less than 10 years later she graduated from Kealakehe High School with a 3.91 grade point average and was on her way to the University of California, Berkeley. There, she would earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees while competing on the track and field team. Marcus also earned two degrees from the University of Hawaii, where he was a wide receiver on the football team.
Although it is clear the system failed them as they were left to wander the streets homeless as young children, both said they finally landed with excellent foster parents who helped them settle into normal life as teenagers.
For Marcus it was Cindy and John Plato of Kailua-Kona. For Francesca it was Jaqueline Woods, also from Kona.
And both were befriended by Neil Everett when they were little children running around Fort Street Mall. This was when Everett worked at Hawaii Pacific University, before he became a national celebrity as an ESPN SportsCenter anchor.
It was even before he held the same local sports reporting job, at the same station, where Francesca is beginning to work now.
"I have no doubt he’s the reason I’m doing what I’m doing now," she said.
When Everett saw the Weems kids on the mall during school hours he knew they could use a friend, and maybe a hamburger.
"It was clear, for lack of a better word, they were disenfranchised," Everett said in a phone interview. "I always had a soft spot for the underdog. These two kids, although they never acted like they were underdogs, they were clearly underdogs in the position their life was then. … It’s not that hard to be nice. It’s harder to not be nice."
Everett became like an uncle. He learned their birthdays and gave Marcus a bike on his and Francesca a dress on hers. He took them on a beach outing and to a basketball game.
Then they were gone. Everett was too, to ESPN in Bristol, Conn.
Their mother and the foster system had them on four different islands at various times before they settled in Kona.
Around Christmas 1994, Angela lost custody of her children. "It was devastating," she said.
Angela Weems had schizophrenia, which had been undiagnosed and untreated for years and affected her ability to care for her children. She now lives in New York, close to other relatives.
"I feel conflicted. I’m so happy and so proud of how things have worked out for them, at the same time I feel victimized because I missed out on so much of their growing up," she said in a phone interview. "That’s something that’s hard to come to terms with. But at the same time I’m thankful for all the people who helped them."
Francesca said she has a good relationship with her biological mother and they talk often.
"She understands it’s not her fault and you can’t go back in time," the daughter said. "My mom is a survivor, and she instilled that in us."
Woods is also "Mom" to Francesca.
She had difficulty at first connecting with foster families. "I’d be at one for a week, or just a day," Francesca said.
At the time, Woods worked for Family Support Systems of West Hawaii. As one of the few African-American social workers statewide, she was asked to help as a liaison for African-American children, including the Weems kids and foster parents.
"The foster families didn’t know what to do with her, things like her hair, her skin," Woods said. "I started following her through the foster homes and became an advocate and a mentor. She was still a special-needs kid at the time. I got really close."
Eventually, Woods became a foster parent and Francesca became her daughter.
It was by no means a seamless transition.
"Fran had emotional and behavioral issues that went with being homeless," Woods said.
Francesca said therapy helped her adjust, as did Woods’ unconditional love.
"I was really manipulative; I would test people," Francesca said. "I was a pain, I would act out, throw tantrums if I didn’t get my way, all the way to (age) 14. Jackie let me get it out of my system."
Woods helped Francesca gain confidence as a student, too. This was also around the time she was blossoming as an athlete, first in soccer, and then as a five-time state champion in track and field.
Stanford was her first choice for college, but Berkeley may have worked out better since Woods has family in Oakland who helped Francesca during her years there.
With Everett as an inspiration, Weems gravitated to sports media. She interned for another former Hawaii and ESPN sportscaster, Larry Beil, in San Francisco.
Another mentor, Sherry Hu, organized a graduation party that included a surprise guest: Everett.
"I hid in the hallway or whatever and when Francesca showed up I came out. She started crying, I’m crying and it was really a lovely moment," Everett said. "After all these years we were able to meet again."
After part-time jobs in Bay Area media for four years after graduation, Weems finally landed a full-time gig at WLBT/Fox 40 in Jackson, Miss., in October 2013. When sports director Mike Cherry left Hawaii News Now late last year, general manager Rick Blangiardi called Everett asking if he knew any good prospects.
Weems "is an exceptional young woman who epitomizes everything that is special in the world of sports, on and off the field of play," Blangiardi said.
HNN flew Woods to Oahu from Kona so she could be in the room when Weems was offered the job.
"Francesca is the reason I quit my job and became a foster parent," Woods said. "I knew she was being abused in the (foster) home she was in and I’ve loved that girl from the time I met her. She was homeless and hungry for so long and now she has a hunger for life and won’t let go. I just tell her sometimes to slow down and make sure to enjoy things."
Weems’ ambition is not fueled by narcissism or having a "fun" job. Her childhood left her with a mission that goes beyond reporting sports.
"I want to inspire people who came from my situation. It’s crazy, surreal to be doing the same job as someone who helped me and my brother so much, someone I love," she said, referring to Everett. "It’s full-circle. Hopefully now I can help others. It’s much more than being able to broadcast sports here. I hope to do volunteer work with human services."
Francesca Weems embraces her childhood homelessness as something that will always be a part of her, the good and the bad. She projects fearlessness, and maybe that’s why.
"You didn’t really think about being scared, although it’s amazing we didn’t get kidnapped. Someone could’ve easily abducted us," she said. "Every day was an adventure."
As they are now, for much different reasons.
PROFILE Francesca Marie Weems >> Born: April 6, 1986, in Los Angeles >> Occupation: Sports anchor/reporter, Hawaii News Now >> College: UC Berkeley, B.A. Mass Communications, M.A. Education >> High school: Kealakehe High, honor graduate, and five-time track and field state champion >> Hobby: Running (Finisher, Nike Women’s Half Marathon and Full Marathon, San Francisco) >> Honors and awards: Gates Millennium Scholar, Nissan Hawaii High School Hall of Honor, Sports Illustrated Women 30 and under panel on gender and sports media >> Fun fact: While working at WLBT/Fox 40 last year in Jackson, Miss., she interviewed the Jackson State football team’s new offensive coordinator, Timmy Chang, who was the University of Hawaii quarterback when her brother, Marcus, was a receiver on the UH team.