TAYLORSVILLE — Through every moment of her day, Rebecca Atem is thinking of her three young children.
She wonders how they are doing at school, dreams about their futures and works through the countless daily tasks that come with raising a family. They are her greatest joy, she says, and her strength to overcome any challenge.
"It's because of them, because some days … it's just overwhelming, with everything all the time in your life, and when you look at (them) you're like, 'You know, I want the best future for them. I want to be able to see that they can succeed,'" Atem said. "I tell my kids all the time that, 'I want you guys, one day, to be able to have the American dream.' And that's my goal."
A Sudanese refugee who came to the United States as a teenager, Atem became a single mother two years ago when her husband was killed in a car accident. Pregnant with the couple's third child, Atem took on the role of full-time parent as well as full-time provider. The Taylorsville YMCA has helped to fill in the gaps, and what Atem receives from the program, she gives back, volunteering and participating at the center whenever she can.
And she always does it with a smile, YMCA staff members say.
Atem was recognized at a surprise event Tuesday at the YMCA as one of Armour foods' "Great moms," a program that has been highlighting mothers around the country this year. Atem was presented with $2,500 for groceries from Smith's grocery stores, along with a bouquet of flowers and hugs from her children.
"I couldn't tell you the secret!" her 7-year-old daughter, Ajoh Majok, beamed while the family posed for a photo. The grinning girl and her brother, 6-year-old Nyiel, took turns holding the oversized check and brainstorming what they should buy with it.
The program, which started in April, has crisscrossed the country to recognize eight moms so far, ranging from a teacher in Florida to a foster mom in Washington state, Armour spokesman Jeff Dennison said Tuesday.
"We know that every mom is a great mom, so it was about bringing light and attention to that. But some of the moms we have been able to find in the local communities, like we found with Rebecca when we heard her story, and being able to partner with our retailers, our friends at Smith's, that's just something cool," Dennison said.
Atem arrived at the YMCA Tuesday believing she was helping with a marketing event for the center. She was called out of the small audience that was assembled, still unsure what was happening, until a wide smile crossed her face as her children arrived and a large check was brought out.
Atem's smile never wavered, until she quietly thanked the representatives from Armour and Smith's following the event, when she dabbed tears from her eyes.
When Armour first contacted the northern Utah YMCA program about nominating a mom to be recognized, Atem rose quickly to the top of many women who were considered, said Jenni Ericksen, administrative director for the Salt Lake County YMCA.
"She's been through quite a lot to be where she's at, but she's always positive and smiling and happy," Ericksen said. "She has always wanted to teach her children the right things, she said she wanted to be in Utah because of the family values that people have here."
It has also been clear to YMCA staff that Atem strives to teach her children the values she believes are important, Ericksen said.
"Things I have learned from her children, that she teaches them, is they understand work ethic, that they need to work for things they are in need of," Ericksen said. "I know this is really going to make a difference in their family for the next few months."
Marsha Gilford, vice president of public affairs for Smith's, said she hopes the gift will especially benefit Atem and her children during the holidays.
"It's exciting to see her be rewarded for being a good mom and for also being a support in the community, because sometimes that goes unrecognized, and it's a great joy to be a part of that," Gilford said.
As her children moved through the familiar faces at the YMCA, Atem shared her appreciation for the program that helps them with their homework and gives them a healthy meal while she works long shifts.
"To spend nine hours at work, it's not worth it when they're not doing good at school. That was my concern most of the time, but they get (help) here, and I don't worry," Atem said. "I am always happy when I drop them off and I pick them up, because I know what it takes to raise a child, and these people committed themselves to do this job. … It's so nice to say to them, ‘Thank you,’ because it's not an easy job."
Above all, Atem wants Ajoh, Nyiel and their 2-year-old sister, Akech, to understand the opportunities that await them in the country that welcomed her when she was young.
"In America, there are no limitations when it comes to your dreams. It's up to you if you want it or not," Atem said.