• Edana Gama, 42
Mom to seven
"I feel like a mother with many lives. As a mother, I'm strong now. The problems make you so strong."
Tears fall easily when Edana Gama speaks of the six children and husband she left behind.
Five years ago, Edana received political asylum to come to Utah from Sudan to seek treatment for daughter Catherine's severe cleft palate. Then 8, Catherine had trouble eating and talking because of the congenital defect.
But Edana never imagined the separation would stretch so many years, or that in her absence the violence of civil war would repeat itself in the lives of her children.
Edana was 12 when civil war broke out, for the second time, between northern and southern Sudan.Her parents were killed as she watched, and Edana thought she was moments from the same fate. Instead, she was spared, though two awful years followed as a captive.
Life took a hopeful turn when she met her husband and they began building a family together. But the mother, she says, is "the head person." So, naturally, she was the one to bring Catherine to Utah, leaving her husband to care for the rest of their family.
Conflict erupted again last year between Sudan and South Sudan, which became an independent state in 2011. Six months ago, Edana's family fled to Juba, capital of South Sudan. Her husband has struggled to find work. When Edana speaks to her family by telephone, her youngest son, she says, always pleads, "Please come home! I'm hungry!"
Edana sends much of what she earns she is a housekeeper at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray and previously worked at Deseret Industries to her family. Sometimes the money gets there, sometimes it doesn't. She hopes the money, in addition to helping them with their daily needs, will help them travel to Uganda and, soon, to Utah.
When you are a mother, she says, you have to be strong, no matter what comes.
• Gina Cornia, 50
Mom to one
"Salt Lake City will get half the credit for whoever he ends up being. Without that support, I could not have done it."
When she was 30, Gina Cornia's life had, as her dad might have said, "gone to hell."
Then, in Houston, Gina discovered she was pregnant, the result of a brief relationship that had no future.
She was alone, scared and embarrassed when she called her parents in Idaho to ask if they would come get her. Gina's parents were on their way within four hours.
Willingness to accept help was one of the best lessons motherhood taught her, Gina says.
She relocated to Salt Lake City when Jacob was 2, taking a job at Utah Issues to work on welfare reform. She found herself, as many single moms do, balancing a career and a life for her son. Everything was thrown off kilter when her father, who was close to his grandson, died of brain cancer.
That's when Gina learned the difference a caring community can make. She found grief counseling for Jake at The Sharing Place in Salt Lake City, while a neighbor stepped up as a mentor and friend. Several years later, the family was still reeling when Gina discovered YouthCity, Salt Lake City's after-school and summer program. Jake began attending the program in fifth grade. Though participation usually ends when a child turns 14, Jake stayed on longer, eventually becoming a summer intern and participating in YouthCity's government program. Last year, he did an internship with Salt Lake City's Fire Department an experience that has set him on path to becoming a paramedic.
YouthCity staffers proved instrumental in helping Jake through behavioral issues surrounding the loss of his grandfather and steering him toward a positive life track.
"They provided a safe, structured place for him to be while I was at work," says Gina,now director of Utahns Against Hunger. "He needed someone to say, Jacob, you can't do that' in a loving way. Fun, firm and fair was their motto."
• Laura Polacheck, 53
Stepmom to two
"As a stepmother, you have to realize you're a stranger put into their lives, one they didn't choose."
Utahn Laura Polacheck knew that by the time she reached her mid 40s, the odds of experiencing motherhood were slim.
Then she met, fell in love with and married a widower with two daughters. Caroline, the youngest, was then 9.
It was not an easy transition. The girls' mother had died a year earlier and the family was still grieving.
"I really wanted to ... let [Caroline] know how much I loved her and wanted the best for her," Laura says, "but at the same time really respecting she had a mother, loved her mother and wanted to keep her mother's memory alive."
Laura, who is an associate state director for AARP Utah, saw her role as helping Caroline learn the more people in her life who loved her, the better and that accepting someone else in a parental role was not a betrayal of her mom's memory.
"It wasn't an either/or choice at all," Laura says.
When envisioning motherhood, Laura had imagined a two-way flow of unconditional love. But joining an established family and crafting individual relationships take time and consistent effort.
"You really have to work to build the relationship," she says, "and put your ego totally out of it and hope they still realize how much you love them."
The caring relationship Laura nurtured with Caroline has lasted even though the marriage that brought them into each other's lives did not. Today, those ties revolve around meals together, errands, picking out shoes for a special dance.
"I'm happy I'm in her life," Laura says. "She is 16, her life is really centered around her friends, so it is harder. I just want her to know I'm there whenever she needs me."
• Rocio Mejia, 55
Mom to three
"There is a better way to grow up with kids having an open conversation, talking to them."
During her childhood, Rocio Mejia's parents did not share much advice about life.
It was both a cultural thing and the result of their conservative bent.
At age 15, when she came to the U.S., Rocio was not only young, but also naive and vulnerable.Soon she was pregnant.
"Growing up, we didn't talk about those things," she says. "Being a mom, being undocumented, being uneducated, not knowing the language, everywhere you turned there was a door you had to open, barriers that I had to go through in order to survive. ... Being a mother was very, very hard."
Rocio married her daughter's father and had a second child before he died of a heart attack when Rocio was 25. As a young mother and then widow, she learned English, got an education and became a U.S. citizen. She remarried and had her youngest son, who is now 19. Today, she is the minority-outreach specialist at Intermountain Donor Services.
With her own children, Rocio never forgot the first lesson she learned as a young mom. No issue was off the kitchen table especially conversations about the importance of not letting drugs derail your life, getting an education and being married before becoming a parent.
• Joan Connolly, 65
Mom to 13
"I had in my mind that I wanted everything to run perfectly, but I couldn't do that."
When Joan married Dean Connolly 44 years ago, they knew they wanted a big family.
"We didn't really have a number in mind," she says. "We just kept going, one at a time."
The Salt Lake City couple ended up with a baker's dozen, and Joan loved everything about being a mom.
Not that it was easy.
"We went to bed tired, we got up tired," she says.
Joan often found herself slipping out of bed after Dean had fallen asleep to catch up on the housework, the laundry.
"I was one who could get along without much sleep," she said.
It doesn't matter whether you have three or 13 children, Joan says, "they still take all your time."
Her marriage was key to making it all work.
"If a couple is strong and really loves each other, it spills over onto the kids, and the family is better," says Joan, who with Dean has taught marriage-enrichment seminars for 33 years.
Still, she says, "I had to learn I couldn't be perfect. I had in my mind that I wanted everything to run perfectly, I couldn't do that."