Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Yami Villanueva plays trains with her son Anthony Villanueva and Michelle Gray in Gray's home on April 24, 2012. Gray a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse at Gwinnett Medical Center met Villanueva several years ago when the 15-year-old gave birth to Anthony. Now Villanueva, 19, and her son Anthony, 4, live with the Gray family of six in Lawrenceville.
PHOTOS: Taking them in
A neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse at Gwinnett Medical Center took in a teenager that had given birth to a baby boy.
VIDEO: Taking them in
Watch the story of Yami Villanueva as she tells how she and her newly born child were brought in to the home of Michelle Gray.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Faced with the prospect of strangers in his home, Anthony, 4, begins a recon mission.
As both of his moms -- one blood, one adoptive, decades in between them -- explain just how he wound up in the comfortable middle-class house nestled in a decidedly suburban Lawrenceville neighborhood, Anthony decides he's done building trains for the afternoon. Glasses sliding down his nose, bare feet padding across hardwood floors, he jogs down a hallway to another room.
He returns with a soft blue blanket, placing it silently between 19-year-old Yami Villanueva, the mother that birthed him, and Michelle Gray, the one who took both of them in when they needed it the most.
Anthony repeats his mission once or twice more, returning with different sheets and quilts and plopping them down on the couch. On the final leg of the mission, the boy returns instead with Hot Wheels in hand. As he runs, one pops out and makes a break for the back of the sofa cushion.
Anthony, born at just 27 weeks to a teenage mother who could barely feed herself, didn't start crawling until after he was 18 months old. The prognosis for his development, mentally and physically, was not good.
Three years later, though, the Hot Wheel doesn't stand a chance. After carefully weighing the best strategy, Anthony decides to attack the enemy from the rear, bounding over the back of the couch and stabbing his hand into the cushions.
Victorious, he emerges with a grin and a bright orange sports car.
Michelle Gray has been a nurse at Gwinnett Medical Center for 20 years, both decades spent in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Incredibly sick or premature babies are the norm; teenage mothers aren't anything out of the ordinary. Caring is what she does.
When Yami came in, barely 15 years old, it was different. Anthony came into the world more than two months early, and would stay in the NICU for about three months. Many nurses took care of him over that time, but when it was approaching the day for him to go home, Anthony's mother was pointed in Gray's direction.
"I didn't know who I was going to take him home to or how he was going to live," Yami, now a freshman at Georgia Gwinnett College, said recently.
A quick bond formed over cafeteria food, and Gray soon learned one big thing -- Yami's home life was not good. Those meals at the hospital were often the only time she was eating. She hadn't told her mother she was pregnant until three days before she delivered. She lived both several places and nowhere at all, depending on how you looked at it.
"I gave her my phone number," Gray said. "I don't know why."
For more than a year, Gray and Yami talked on the phone, the latter bringing Anthony over for the occasional weekend stay. Gray said she would routinely wake up in the middle of the day (she was working the night shift at the time) worried about them both. Yami said she was struggling to feed her child.
Throughout those months, all of Gwinnett Medical Center's NICU nurses were chipping in to help. One would routinely bring envelopes with $100 bills for Gray to pass along. One donated the frames that became Anthony's glasses. They threw Anthony's first birthday party.
The whole unit adopted Yami's family for Christmas one year. It was the first time Yami had ever opened a present. There was food to eat.
"I was so overwhelmed and I just felt like I didn't deserve it," Yami said, blushing. "But there was so much food."
All that was just the beginning.
Gray is a mother of four herself: one daughter now 19, twins, 22, and another daughter, 25. All of them were in college or headed that way shortly. Her days of raising children were nearly over.
Still, on May 20, 2009, Yami Villanueva packed all of her belongings into two garbage bags, put Anthony in a car seat and moved in to the Grays' home on Winthrope Way.
"I just felt like she was already my kid," Gray said.
Anthony has grown since then. Yami has, too.
In his first year or two on Earth, Anthony exhibited what's clinically called "failure to thrive." After persisting so long on a little milk a day, he refused to eat. Doctors anticipated he would be challenged in any number of ways.
Gray's husband, Doug, took that as a challenge. The rest of the Gray children did too.
"(Anthony) came here and he had his own group of therapists," Gray said. "All of my kids just adore him." She jokingly called Doug's love for him "pathetic."
Yami approached the head of her new family one day with a genuine question -- how did she wash the clothes? Why were all of hers shrinking?
The short answer is they weren't. Yami was actually eating. She quickly gained 10 healthy pounds.
By her junior year at Brookwood High School, she was working at Chick-fil-A on Scenic Highway, where she's now a manager. Now she's in college, where she plans to study early childhood education.
"I just owe so much to children and my passion is children," Yami said. "I've always felt that because I know what it is to live in a hard place, I want to deal with children that are in a less fortunate area."
The nurse that took her in has no regrets. There was a bit of doubt at first, but the family "trusted God with the details."
She lights up when Anthony plops down in her lap, cheers when he drives his favorite Lightning McQueen car just a little too fast down the hill. Mother's Day, though the relationships are hard to define concretely, is a very special day.
"There are a lot of kids who need help, and when you feel that tap, when you feel that thing like 'I should do something,' I don't think that's an accident," she said. "I think that if you step into that and you embrace it, that everything that you need to make it happen will fall into place. And the blessings will blow you away."