Growing up, Loudonville resident Marcus Mohalland didn’t have an overflowing toy box.
There was no Play Station, bike, or soccer ball that he could call his own.
But from his perspective, that didn’t really matter. He spent the first 14 years of his life in Jamaica playing with his siblings and other kids in the neighborhood. They spent much of their days playing make-believe outside.
“I had a great childhood,” Mohalland said.
It’s part of the reason he started writing about it seven years ago with retired nurse Jan Lewis.
“I’ve always wanted to use my childhood experiences to motivate kids because I feel like I had a really great childhood and I just thought kids will enjoy my stories and motivate them to go after their dreams, their goals,” Mohalland said.
He and Lewis write about his childhood in the “Silly Nomads” series, which follows a fictionalized version of Mohalland and his younger brother as they go on various adventures, pretending to be nomads, and, sometimes, getting into trouble.
Mohalland and Lewis started writing the books together seven years ago and have since founded Mohalland Lewis LLC, an organization that promotes literacy through school visits, readings and through the “Silly Nomads” series, which has been read in several countries around the globe.
So far there are five volumes in the children’s book series, including “Journey to the Race Track,” one of Mohalland’s favorites.
“My grandmother, for many, many years, would go to the race track and sell food. That was their main source of income. She would sell fried dumplings, she would sell plantains, all this stuff. But to get to the race track you have to push [the food] in a cart,” Mohalland said.
When Mohalland was about 10 years old, she asked him to push the cart to the track, which was outside of his neighborhood in Jamaica. He was convinced that he couldn’t do it, that the cart was just too heavy and the track too far away.
Yet, she encouraged him to try and through a morning of sweat, tears and rain, he was able to push it all the way there.
“I thought it was miles and miles. I talked with my dad and he said [it was] maybe half a mile. But when you’re 10 years old, that’s forever. . . . I made it and she was so proud of me and I was so proud of myself. I talked about it for months after that,” Mohalland said.
In the coming weeks, he and Lewis will also be working on a volume about Miss Edith, a neighbor who liked to scare Mohalland and his siblings with ghost stories, or “duppy” stories as they’re called in Jamaica.
After that, Mohalland thinks the “Silly Nomads” just might venture to America, as he and his family did when he was 15 years old.
However, his first few years here weren’t at all as joyous as his childhood.
For the first three months, he and his entire family lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens. Mohalland said that the tight quarters caused a lot of tension in the family and neighbors called the police on the family several times with noise complaints. He and his siblings were taken by child protective services and placed in different homes. Mohalland and his brother were placed in a boys home in the Castle Hill neighborhood of the Bronx.
“It was good and bad. We were interacting with some bad kids, some of them in and out of jail. But I knew that my parents at that time couldn’t provide for all of us,” Mohalland said. He was there until he graduated high school and moved to Binghamton to study English at Binghamton University.
It’s not a time that he looks back upon fondly, but he wasn’t discouraged by it.
“That didn’t stop me from going to high school and being on the honors, getting good grades, going on to college, graduating,” Mohalland said.
While there, he also met people like doctor Irwin Redlener, who co-founded the Children’s Health Fund with Paul Simon. Mohalland stayed in touch with Redlener over the years and the doctor always encouraged Mohalland to talk publicly about his journey from Jamaica to the United States.
At first, Mohalland was comfortable talking about his career as a youth empowerment coordinator in Broome County and in the healthcare field where he currently works. He never wanted to talk about the first few years he spent in the U.S. That’s changed since his son, Elijah, was born.
“I want him to say ‘Hey, that was dad’s past and dad did okay so don’t be ashamed of who you are or where you come from.
Anybody can make it if you put in the hard work and dedication; you can do anything you want,’ ” Mohalland said.
The first time he publicly told his full story was nearly three years ago, during the 30th anniversary gala of the Children’s Health Fund, where he gave a speech and met celebrities like Julianne Moore.
“It was cool, my journey from [being] this poor kid in Jamaica. My life has changed so much over the years,” Mohalland said.
Tonight, he’ll be discussing the “Silly Nomads” series and his experiences at the University at Albany. From 6-8 p.m. (Humanities room 354) he and other members of the Pan Caribbean Student Association will host “Conversations on Caribbean Realities.” For more info, call 518-442-4730. For more info on the book series, visit mohallandlewisllc.com.