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A Black family in Maryland navigates the pandemic and inflation with some success

Tyrone Ferrens, a plant electrician at Under Armour, sits for a portrait in his house in Aberdeen, Md.
Shuran Huang
/
For NPR
Tyrone Ferrens, a plant electrician at Under Armour, sits for a portrait in his house in Aberdeen, Md.

Looking at Tyrone Ferrens and his blended family today, you'd be forgiven for thinking their path to success was easy.

Despite the ravages of the pandemic, Ferrens – a stock market-savvy man with a habit of casually dropping high-level economics talk in everyday conversations – says he and his wife's household income has doubled since the start of COVID-19.

The house the family shares in Aberdeen, Md. – a six bedroom, five bathroom suburban structure with a pool and two ponds in the backyard – is a testament to years of hard work by Ferrens and his wife, Michelle.

"We watched our house get built from the ground up, and it was just like our baby," Ferrens said, proudly displaying the backyard.

There, Ferrens and his wife live with two of the couple's adult children – biologically Michelle's, but equally loved by the pair – Ferrens' mother, a grandson and a brood of family pets.

Tyrone Ferrens' wife, Michelle Ferrens, and his mother, Patricia Villa, talk to their dog Ashe.
Shuran Huang / For NPR
/
For NPR
Tyrone Ferrens' wife, Michelle Ferrens, and his mother, Patricia Villa, talk to their dog Ashe.

"We're like the real-life Brady Bunch," Ferrens jokes, introducing the couple's "only biological child" – an equally tiny and territorial white pup named Ashe.

Until the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Michelle had been retired from her work as a respiratory therapist.

"This being a respiratory disease she was receiving phone calls 'we'll pay you,' doubling her offers or tripling her pay to travel," Ferrens said. "And we came up with a plan that while she was doing that and I was doing the things that I was doing, that we could afford to build this home, our forever home."

Ferrens works as an electrician with the sports equipment company Under Armour.

While Michelle was on the road as a traveling healthcare professional, he would often work in excess of 115 hours a pay period to keep at bay the loneliness of missing his partner.

The turn to honest work was a sharp departure for Ferrens, who spent 16 years of his adulthood addicted to crack cocaine and heroin. As many often do, Ferrens also turned to selling drugs during that time.

"I'm originally from New York. I grew up in the inner-city, came from Brooklyn," he said. "I came down here basically out of necessity. I had been trying to get away from both the police and people."

Ferrens described the "people" as possible "co-defendants" in charges he had been facing.

Tyrone Ferrens contemplates as he speaks to NPR reporters in his house in Aberdeen, Md.
Shuran Huang / For NPR
/
For NPR
Tyrone Ferrens contemplates as he speaks to NPR reporters in his house in Aberdeen, Md.

Downward spiral

When Michelle and Tyrone first met, barely out of their teens on a flight to California, both were on bright paths.

Tyrone was heading to training for his career as a Navy electrician, and Michelle, then an aspiring rapper, would go on to join the RIAA-certified gold girl-group JJ Fad.

But Tyrone Ferrens found his time in the Navy disappointing. He says he was training to become part of the elite Navy SEALS, but says he was faced with overt racism by his fellow recruits.

Ferrens intentionally failed a drug test to get discharged, he said, sending his life into a downward spiral.

He returned to New York and lost touch with Michelle. He married, and divorced, his first wife, and started using and selling drugs.

"I had been living in such a hopeless existence for so long," Ferrens said.

After his last stint of incarceration – a six-month bid for felony assault in 2007 – Ferrens resolved to turn his life around.

"I was determined, because I had sons, that I didn't want to continue in that line. I wanted to change my life."

He joined a Jumpstart program for former offenders and improved on his skills as an electrician.

"I eventually finished four years of apprenticeship school. I became a licensed electrician," he said.

"I've never had any more police contact. I have 15 years clean and sober, and I just ended up at Under Armour."

A wedding photo of Tyrone Ferrens and his wife, Michelle Ferrens, from 2014.
Shuran Huang / For NPR
/
For NPR
A wedding photo of Tyrone Ferrens and his wife, Michelle Ferrens, from 2014.

From there, he reconnected with Michelle – then mostly finished with the high-flying tour life and herself a mother to four children.

The two settled down in Maryland with their eyes on building their dream house to enjoy their retirement years.

But over the past two years as the pandemic raged, two of the couple's adult children found their financial lives in peril and moved into their parents' home.

The older of the two children, a daughter, Regina, took over the basement, accompanied by her four dogs – two huskies and two chihuahuas.

"It was going to be my man cave," Ferrens said of the basement, but "kids need a place to stay means kids need to come home. That's far more important than a man cave."

Both children, inspired by their father's success, are now following Ferrens' career path and are training to become licensed electricians.

"I would just see him at work, and I would just be amazed by like the amount of things he would talk about or the amount of things we would see," Ferrens' son Andre Lee said admiringly of his father.

"I never had that growing up," he said. "Although he is my stepfather, he is my real father at the end of the day, because of what he's done for me in my life. It's because of him that I can call myself a man and be proud of it."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michelle Ferrens, son Andre Lee, Patricia Villa, mother of Tyrone Ferrens, and Tyrone sit for a portrait in their house in Aberdeen, Md.
Shuran Huang / For NPR
/
For NPR
Michelle Ferrens, son Andre Lee, Patricia Villa, mother of Tyrone Ferrens, and Tyrone sit for a portrait in their house in Aberdeen, Md.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.