Editor's note: This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.
SPRINGFIELD — Sean and Darline Mabins figure they made about $180,000 last year. In this economy, that's an impressive number.
The Mabins don't apologize for their relative wealth. They both come from childhoods that were marked by a lack of it. And they have worked hard to place themselves in that earnings bracket.
To them, a healthy bank account is the foundation for happiness because it enables them and their three children to have a stable life. They have purposely chosen jobs that pay well and found ways they can achieve the highest standard of living for the lowest cost possible.
Sean has been able to find good deals on cars as the sales manager at Youngblood Kia. And Darline, who manages a branch of Guaranty Bank, qualified for a good interest rate on their home mortgage because she is an employee at the bank and they met the credit and income requirements and contributed a sizable down payment. .
Most importantly, the money they earn helps them secure an education and future for their children.
These days, $1,000 a month goes to the Sylvan Learning Center to tutor 14-year-old Isaiah, whose grades need to come up if he's going to get into college.
Another $800 a month goes to Springfield Lutheran School, where 6-year-old Kylan is in kindergarten.
And another $800 is taken out of Darline's check every month in pretax dollars to pay for 4-year-old Naomi's private preschool at Springfield Lutheran.
The Mabins think paying for private school for their two youngest children is worth $1,600 a month because it will lay the groundwork for them to be successful later in life. They plan on moving Kylan and Naomi to public school in middle school, once they're solidly on the right track.
Darline and Sean know Springfield Lutheran is giving Kylan and Naomi a good education because the school gives them close feedback.
"Kylan's teacher tells me everything — where he is on his reading, where he needs to improve. It's detailed information," Darline says. "Whereas with public school, it's like, 'Well, he's OK.' What's OK? Compared to who?"
According to Education Week, about 10 percent of American schoolchildren attend private schools. Those students are more likely to go on to college.
For all of their hard work and planning, the Mabins don't see their good fortune solely as the result of their efforts.
"We call it favor — favor from God. That's all it is," Sean says. "We know that God has blessed us, and we try and give back as much as we can."
The Mabins are members of Deliverance Temple Ministries. Their faith is a vital part of their lives that gives them strength and direction. The church is also how they met.
They know what it is to be blessed because they know how difficult life can be.
Childhoods rooted in poverty, tragedy
Darline, 32, was born in Haiti. When she was 3, her entire family took a taxi truck from the city to the country to celebrate her younger brother's birthday. On the way back, the truck slipped off the bumpy, curvy road and rolled down the mountain.
Darline, her father and her younger brother survived the crash. Her mother and older brother did not.
"The hard part is I only remember bits and pieces," she says. "I didn't see a picture of my mother until I was in my 20s. That's a long time not to know if your face is on your mother's face."
Sean, 42, was born in the Missouri Bootheel, the fifth of seven living siblings. His mom, brothers and sisters lived with his maternal grandparents in their house in Sikeston. Sean's dad wasn't in the picture, and neither were any of his siblings' fathers.
Sean's family lived in a poor, black neighborhood known as Sunset Addition. At the time, Sean didn't realize they were poor.
"We were out taking two-by-fours and nails and making cars, playing with rocks and clay," he says.
In the 1980s, Sunset Addition got swept up in the national crack epidemic, and Sean's mom worried about her children's safety. As best as Sean can remember, she scraped together money from her job as a cook at the Shangri La in Sikeston and managed to move the family to Springfield when Sean was 13. Suddenly, Sean was the only African-American in his class. Even today, census data show that just 4 percent of Springfield is African-American.
For the first time, Sean was aware of his family's poverty. He saw classmates wearing Nikes and Ralph Lauren shirts and their parents driving Mercedes-Benz. He decided he was going to have all of that someday.
What he didn't know was how he was going to get it. His mom didn't emphasize education; she worked as a cook in various high-end restaurants and made do with food stamps and child support from Sean's dad.
"She didn't make it past fourth or fifth grade," Sean says. "Back then, no one cared if black kids got an education."
As a single mom who had lost two other children to unexplained infant illnesses, her focus was on her kids being safe and healthy.
"She was very, very overprotective," Sean says. "I mean, we did all right, obviously, in school. We didn't flunk out. But she didn't care about homework. She just made sure that we were in the house, that we weren't drinking, that we weren't doing drugs, that we weren't embarrassing ourselves. And that we were alive."
His mom also wouldn't let Sean or his brothers and sisters have jobs while in school.
"She was like, you're going to work the rest of your life. Have fun while you’re in high school," he says.
Putting a premium on education
Darline's childhood was also underscored by struggle, but her father put a premium on education as a way to a better life. He put her and her brother in school from the time they were 3, and he expected good grades.
"You didn't want to disappoint him 'cause we knew how hard he worked," she says.
Back in Haiti, Darline's father worked as a waiter aboard Royal Caribbean Cruises. He married an American woman when Darline was 7, and the family moved to her home in Kansas City. Her father continued to work aboard cruise ships for the next year, then settled in Kansas City, where he worked on the line canning meat for Armour Packing Co.
After her mother's death, Darline helped raise her younger brother and learned to take care of herself early on. She knew that if she wanted something, she'd have to work for it. And that a key to being successful was going to college. Darline's dad didn't finish school in Haiti, but her stepmother had a college degree.
Darline studied sculpture and mixed media, graduating from Missouri State University in 2002 with a bachelor's degree in fine arts. But she never planned on making art her career because it wasn't a good way to earn a living.
"I love art. It's something that's always come naturally to me," she says. "But I didn't want to be a starving artist."
Instead, she found a job after college working for a Chase bank. She has worked her way up in banking jobs ever since.
Turning back to faith
After high school, Sean went to Ozark Technical Community College for a year and then followed a good friend to University of Washington in Seattle. Rather than focus on studying, he and his friend started going to parties and drinking.
"We went out there and just kind of kicked it. The school was glad to see us leave," he says, laughing.
He moved back to Springfield within a year but kept the partying lifestyle. First he worked at clothing stores, then switched between a few grocery stores, working his way up to lower management.
More than a decade passed.
In 2002 on the advice of a friend, Sean began selling cars for Republic Ford and discovered he had a knack for it.
But it was an event three months later that truly changed Sean's life — an event that Sean now calls a miracle.
Driving home on New Year's Eve, he fell asleep at the wheel and drove off a bridge at the U.S. 60 and 65 interchange. His Jeep flipped over and over until it landed in the Springfield Veterans Cemetery. Sean wasn't wearing his seat belt. He shot through the windshield.
"My brain swelled, knocked all my teeth out," Sean says. "Broke all the ribs on the left side of my body. Ruptured my bladder and my spleen and my colon. I think I broke my right pelvis."
The prognosis was grim, and doctors warned Sean he might never make a full recovery. Instead, Sean says, he defied all expectations and left the hospital in two weeks.
Sean credits prayer: "My mother is a praying woman. She did nothing but pray and fast for three days."
After the accident, Sean stopped partying.
"I totally understood that I had no control over my life. That it was not mine. It was all God's," he says.
Sean grew up attending Deliverance Temple Ministries and had never stopped going to church but says he hadn't been living a life dedicated to God. Now he turned back to his faith.
Two months after the accident, a friend who knew both Sean and Darline suggested Sean give his testimony at a conference Darline was organizing for Campus Crusade for Christ at Missouri State. Darline had been attending Deliverance Temple since she moved to Springfield in 2000. Sean and Darline knew of each other through church but had never spent time together. They were of different ages and lifestyles.
"She seemed at peace, and I knew I would just bring her chaos," Sean says. "I noticed her though."
The accident and the conference gave him a new perspective. He got Darline's number from a mutual friend, called her and asked her out. Darline jokes that he stalked her. But Sean insists he was just persistent.
They were married a little more than a year later.
Visions for a better future
It's that same persistence combined with God's favor that Sean credits for his success today, despite his lack of a college degree and the racial discrimination he says he's faced.
In 2007, Sean was awarded $100,000 from a racial discrimination lawsuit against the grocery chain Price Cutter. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission fought the lawsuit on his behalf.
Sean says he's not at liberty to discuss the settlement. However, court documents indicate that the money was compensation for racial epithets and possibly wrongful termination.
After Sean got into auto sales, he eventually went to work at the Youngblood Auto Group and was soon setting records for the most cars sold in a month.
A year after he started at the car dealership, a job opened up in finance, and Sean told one of the owners he wanted to apply. He says the manager in charge of hiring had never worked with an African-American before and seemed uncomfortable with putting a black man in that position. But Sean argued his case, and even offered to cut his hair, which he wears in long dreadlocks. "I said, 'Look, you can't give me this job, and you can't take it away. The Lord will do that.'"
He got the job, kept his dreads and became good friends with the manager.
Sean was later promoted to sales manager. He often works 12 hours a day, six days a week, but he earns a percentage of everything the dealership sells.
Darline's job managing a branch of Guaranty Bank gives her more flexibility than Sean, so she builds her hours around time with the children and doing volunteer work in the community. Sean's mom still lives in town and sometimes babysits the three kids.
Sean's oldest son, Isaiah, spent most of his early childhood in Texas with his mother, a former girlfriend of Sean's. The relationship didn't last, and Sean saw Isaiah a couple of times a year.
But now he was settled with Darline and their two children. He and Darline both knew the struggles of growing up in single-parent homes, wanted all their children to have more opportunities and to be raised by two parents.
"When you don't have a father figure, there's this void," Sean says.
So when Isaiah turned 13 and could state his preference in court, Sean and Darline obtained full custody and moved him back to Springfield with them. It took some adjusting for them all, but you'd never know it now.
"He (Isaiah) changed our lives," Darline says. "When you go from a 5-year-old to a (teenager) – whoa."
Isaiah and his little brother, Kylan, seem to have a special relationship. Although they are more than seven years apart in age, Isaiah tosses a NERF football around the yard with Kylan and stands behind Kylan’s chair while they watch cartoons, playing with his little brother's dreads.
For now, the Mabins are focused on raising their family and making a good living — goals they see as related.
"I don't want my kids to struggle with anything," Darline says.
"But we don't want them to have that sense of entitlement, either," Sean adds.
They try to find the balance between giving their kids enough but not too much. And while they make conscious choices now that allow them to do that, they also dream and plan for the future.
Darline eventually would like to work for a nonprofit that focuses on bringing education to underprivileged children, building the volunteer work she does now into a career. Sean would like to open up his own business — either a car dealership or a restaurant.
Sean wants a bigger house someday. He likes to be able to afford nice things and welcomes the challenge of making money. It's a matter of proving to himself that he can do it and never has to be poor again.
Darline's childhood left her with similar goals, but ones she feels she's already achieved.
"For me, I'm there," she says. "If I can see my family, take a family vacation, my kids are in school, and we're not missing meals, and I can help people — I'm good."