Skip to main content

A light in the darkness

Oct 30, 2017 01:42PM ● Published by J. Chambless

The Tucker family, with the memorial wall in their home dedicated to Ashley Nicole.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

The darkness came without warning. It swallowed up the Tucker family for eight long years. However, the light that is now leading the family is making life better not only for them, but for dozens of young people who are seeing the kindness of Ashley Nicole Tucker live on.

On the sunny afternoon of June 16, 2006, the Tucker family was setting up for Ashley's belated 16th birthday party in their Charlestown home. Ashley stepped into the room where the family stored household items near the washer and dryer. She fell into a 20-foot-deep unused well shaft that the family had carefully covered with wood as they were renovating the home. No one saw her fall. No one can say how it happened. But Ashley died.

That horrifying instant shattered the lives of Susan and Frank Tucker, and the lives of their two young children, Megan and Grant.

Ashley Nicole Tucker (center), with a young Grant and Megan Tucker.

 Susan said the moment that began to lift the crippling sorrow was hearing the song “I Believe,” by Diamond Rio, that had been performed at Ashley's memorial service, on the radio one day. “I started bawling,” she said. “My husband, Frank, came home from work and I said, 'That's it. We have to do something to stop grieving her every single day.' It had been seven years.” Sitting at the kitchen table in October, in the same home where Ashley died, Susan Tucker said that the depression and guilt and emotional paralysis of the years that followed were endured through therapy and the boundless help of a counselor at Charlestown Elementary School who worked with the two younger Tucker children. Today, like their mother and father, they carry the scar of Ashley's loss, but are moving forward.

The Tuckers felt that they had do something – anything – to refocus their lives and pay tribute to Ashley, who had always loved children and wanted to be a child psychologist.

“I asked my friend Nicole Meekins, who was also a social worker at the time, what we could do,” Susan recalled. “I had thought about adopting foster kids, but we decided that if I knew the mother was still on drugs, I was not going to give the kid back. She said, 'I don't think fostering is for you,'” Susan said, laughing. “But she said there were other things we could do. Finally, we decided that it's the 16- to 21-year-old kids that get forgotten. So we help the ones that are not with a family. They rent a room from someone, or they rent an apartment if they're 18.”

Teens are often in limbo, with some support from Social Services, but still facing the challenges of adulthood, often without any sort of preparation. Their lives, already scarred by the lack of a stable home life, are chaotic. Sometimes, they have children of their own. Susan had found her cause.

There were endless discussions of how to set up a non-profit organization, a maze of paperwork to become part of the foster care chain that begins at birth and ends at age 21. Eventually, the organization that became ANT's Army got underway. It's named for Ashley's initials, but also suggests the tiny force that's working on a huge problem.

Susan and her family, though, are undeterred.

In November 2014, ANT's Army started organizing grassroots fundraisers. That Christmas, there were small gifts for those in foster care who were still in school. Those who were older got clothing, modestly priced jewelry, soaps, and winter hats, scarves and gloves. At Easter, Susan organized gifts of paper products, soap and toothpaste, and a little bit of candy. And there is always a chocolate Easter bunny, a family tradition from when Susan herself was a child.

There was a painting project in 2015 with a volunteer instructor who worked with the teens to paint whatever they wanted. Every June, there's a cookout for the teens and their children, where ANT's Army provides food and fellowship and a chance to relax. There have been 5K runs and letters sent to local businesses and ongoing promotional efforts, all of which are limited by the donations on hand. But word is spreading.

Susan gets a list of young people living in Cecil County or nearby from Social Services – just their first name and last initial. From that list of needed items, she works to get donations, particularly for Christmas, but also as needs arise.

“I got a call a few months ago from a girl who said she didn't have any food in the house and her baby needed diapers,” Susan said. “I texted Kim, the social worker, crying because I didn't get paid for a week and we didn't have the money, and ANT's Army had like $7 in the account. Susan said, 'Give her credit for reaching out to you. But this is life. They have to learn to deal with these things. You can text her back and say you don't have it this week. She has other resources.' It turned out OK, but these are my kids, you know?”

While the holiday fundraisers are a primary focus, the Tucker family's garage and spare rooms are stuffed with items that could be needed at any time, donated by friends or people they don't even know. Clothing, appliances, small furniture – there's everything you'd need in setting up an apartment.

“We give out toiletries, or if they're moving to their first apartment, we get pots and pans, a mixer, or dishes,” Susan said. “Sometimes a church pantry here in town will have extra items donated. I'll get a call from them and they'll say they have three sets of dishes, but they're all mismatched. I'll say, 'I want them!'

“The first year we went to the Christmas party for the older kids, I gave one girl her Christmas gifts and she looked at me and said, 'What do you want from me? Why would you do this?'” Susan said. “Later, we had her over to the house to make Christmas cookies and that kind of stuff. She looked through the recipe and asked, 'What's a tsp?' These kids don't have that background. I asked, 'Honey, what do you make at home?' She said, 'Frozen pizzas.' They have no wooden spoons, no spatulas, any of that stuff.”

Friends will buy a few extra items at the supermarket to donate to the cause. Once, Frank went to open the front door to go to work in the morning, but it was blocked by bags of donated clothing. He laughed at the memory, grateful for the kindness of unseen people who want to help.

“I definitely help out with getting stuff on the truck,” he said. “We can pick up things like furniture and deliver it different places.” Most times, the family doesn't see the recipients of their gifts. “There's a handful we deal with personally,” he said. “They've been to our house, we've been to their places.”

This Christmas, Susan said, there are 19 young people on the gift list, along with nine of their young children, including three who have officially aged out of the system but remain family friends. Susan can't resist getting them a little something as well.

The Tuckers are not wealthy, and they give out 100 percent of what is donated, either to the teens or to another local charity if they can't use something. “It's actually more than 100 percent,” Frank said, smiling and looking at Susan, who acknowledged spending their own money. “That's the reason we don't have money for a storage place, because there's no way we could do that. I'm not going to bring in $500 and give a storage place $200,” he said.

“One girl who has aged out has been with us since day one,” Susan said. “I texted her one day and she said her prepaid phone was out of minutes. It was Christmas and she said her son's holiday was more important than her phone. I asked her to meet me at Walmart. I had six bags of clothes for her in my car. I went into the store. She needed $50 for the phone. The cards are sold for $45. I knew she was going to be $5 short, so I bought her two cards. She cried when I gave them to her. She hugged me and thanked me and drew me this wonderful picture. She's got a job now, she's doing very well.”

Megan is a strong supporter of ANT's Army, and helps at events. “People will ask me to get up and explain what ANT's Army is about,” Susan said. “When I start to say something, my voice will crack, and then she'll try to take over, and she'll start to cry. This year at the 5K, though, I was so proud because it was the first time my voice didn't crack.”

“A lot of my friends from school will help, and mom will sign papers for their volunteer hours,” Megan said. “It helps everybody. A lot of them come to every event. The first year we did the Christmas party, we gave one of the guys his presents, and he said, 'Sorry, but can I open these on Christmas Day?' Without our stuff, there wasn't going to be a Christmas for him.”

Susan especially thanked the Market Street Cafe in Charlestown, the hub of the community where ANT's Army holds vendor fundraisers, and where the paper stockings are put up every holiday season so patrons can pick one or two up and buy gifts, in a method similar to how the Angel Tree prison ministry works.

Susan smiled and said her naivete was showing at several points. Cash donations must be turned into gift cards so they cannot be abused, she realized. “I live under a rock,” she said, smiling. “So when I heard that we can't give people razors, I had no idea what that meant … And last year, a lot of people gave us cleaning supplies and bleach. Well, I didn't even think of what you could do with that.” Last year, Susan put a $10 bill in an Easter egg for each teen because she can't say no all the time, she admitted.

Both Megan and Grant nodded and said they have seen a big difference in the family since ANT's Army has become the focus for their parents. “Now they have something to put their emotions towards,” Megan said.

The outreach, the young people they have helped, the way Susan and Frank have a purpose, have brought fresh air to the family dynamic. And the community is the beneficiary.

While Susan said she appreciates the donations and occasional responses to emergency requests, what ANT's Army needs now is a storage space that's not the family's garage. If they had more space to keep supplies until they're needed, they could respond to more needy young people and accept even more donations. So far, a space hasn't been found, but the family is hopeful about getting some location that is either free or very low cost.

Susan keeps the organization in the public eye as much as she can, and high-visibility events like the 5K races and T-shirts help spread the word.

Through it all, she keeps the wishes of Ashley, who would be 27 now, foremost in her mind. “Whenever I meet with Stephanie Astle, my tax lady, she asks, 'Would Ashley want you to do this?'” Susan said, smiling. “And I think this is exactly what Ashley would want to be part of.”

For more information, visit www.ants-army.weebly.com, or find ANT's Army on Facebook.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.


Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Cecil County's free newsletter to catch every headline

Today, News