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'Everything she's done is for those kids:' Meet the real hero behind BYU's Yoeli Childs

Corner Canyon High school teacher Kara Childs teaches in Draper on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Childs is the mother of BYU star basketball player Yoeli Childs.
Corner Canyon High school teacher Kara Childs teaches in Draper on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019. Childs is the mother of BYU star basketball player Yoeli Childs.
Jeffrey D. Allred

SOUTH JORDAN — This story isn’t really about sports, even though it’s on the sports page and concerns basketball in a peripheral way. It’s about a single mother who worked as many as three jobs to ensure that her two sons did not pay in any way for a troubled marriage; it’s about a woman who made the painful decision to leave the marriage and go it alone with two sons.

One of those sons has become an all-conference basketball player at BYU. Yoeli Childs, a junior forward, is expected to declare for the NBA draft after the season ends, according to a member of the program. Childs came up through the club ranks and owes much of his basketball development to a pair of club coaches, Stu Parker and Tim Davis. But Davis states emphatically that the real hero of Childs’ story is his mother, Kara.

“Everything she’s done is for those kids,” says Davis. “She is one of the finest people I’ve met, an unbelievable human being.”

“I look up to my mom more than anybody,” Yoeli once told Deseret News beat writer Jeff Call. “I wouldn’t be half the man I am today without her.”

Kara Childs, 42, teaches math at Corner Canyon High. Before that, she taught math for years at the collegiate level. But mostly she has spent the last two decades raising her sons — Yoeli, 21, and Masay, 19. Asked the inevitable question about the unusual names, Kara says, “Their dad came up with those. I didn’t have a lot of input on that.” According to Kara, their father’s family came from Africa but emigrated to Germany. Yoeli is Hebrew for “Will of God,” and Masay's name has African roots and means “Joyful.”

Kara grew up in Orangeville, Emery County, a town so small (population 1,400) that it didn’t even merit a stoplight. Kara’s goal in life was to put Orangeville — and Utah, for that matter — in her rearview mirror. She managed the former when she was 17, graduating early with a strong background in theater and music (she played piano, flute and bassoon in school orchestra). She enrolled in what was then called Utah Valley State College and earned a degree in math, then took a master’s degree in math at Utah State while also teaching the subject there.

She married while at UVSC. The marriage endured six years. As she begins to tell this part of her story, Kara stops abruptly to check her emotions. Sitting in her apartment in South Jordan, Kara says she has known all week that this interview would lead to questions about the marriage and the more painful parts of her story. She was reluctant, but after thinking about it for days she decided there is value in its telling.

“There are parts of this story that could be helpful to people,” she says. “But I’m hesitant because I don’t want backlash from him. It feels like a different part of my life. It wasn’t a good environment. It was pretty tumultuous. It wasn’t how I wanted to raise my kids. That was the biggest thing. People stay married for the kids. I decided this was going to be way more damaging for them than having a single parent. I would want people to understand that even if it’s hard, you can get out of it. But at the time you don’t see any escape. I was committed to do everything I can do to succeed.”

Yoeli and Masay were 3 and 2, respectively, when Kara left the marriage. The divorce was so contentious that it took three years to complete, and by then, she says, she was so worn out by the process that in the end all she wanted was custody of her boys and the right to live wherever she chose.

“I didn’t care about money or anything,” she says.

She taught at Utah State for six years and then moved to Washington to teach at Everett Community College, but, struggling with the higher cost of living and the distance from family, she returned to Utah. Her finances were so tight that she took extra jobs to make ends meet. By day she taught full-time at UVU, and at night she tutored students in her apartment and taught classes at Salt Lake Community College.

“I had to,” she says.

She arranged her schedule so that she got off work in time to pick up the boys. The family lived in North Salt Lake for a time, which meant that after dropping the boys off at school, she raced south to Utah County for her teaching job, and raced north again to pick up her sons. Eventually, they moved to Provo, but Yoeli developed a keen interest in basketball and began playing for a club team based in South Jordan. Now she was racing north to South Jordan for basketball practice after school and sitting in the car in the parking lot with Masay for a couple of hours until practice finished.

She did much of her teaching prep and grading at home so she could be with her sons. “I did the part-time jobs so I could be with my sons full time,” she says. She was getting up at 5 every morning to get everything done. “I was tired,” she says.

She made one more big move, trading her college teaching job for a high school teaching job, partly because it mirrored her sons’ schedules and partly to understand why so many college students lacked fundamental math skills.

“I wanted to go to the root of the problem and see what’s happening,” says Kara, who has taught developmental math, trigonometry, geometry and calculus.

So she took the teaching job at Corner Canyon and moved her family to an apartment in South Jordan. “We were the three musketeers, grinding and getting things done to be the best we can be,” she says, pausing again to stop the tears. “It really bonded the boys and me. I tried to create a world where it didn’t feel like it was lacking anything. That was my main goal — to have a childhood and as complete of an upbringing as possible that I could provide.”

Kara says her sons have no contact with their father. Masay, who lives with her, is working for a hearing-aid company while also pursuing a deep interest in music that he hopes will lead to a career. A self-taught musician, he’s composed thousands of songs and writes poetry and lyrics, much of it about social issues wrapped around an urban, melodic musical style.

“The first time he played (a recording) for me I was blown away,” says Kara. “He really is talented musically and sings very well.”

Like his brother, Masay showed early interest in basketball, but he quit the game after his sophomore year in high school. “I think Masay was actually better than Yoeli,” says Kara. “He is naturally lean and lanky. We used to go to the park on Sundays and I’d watch them play basketball and watch them dunk. Masay was like a dancer out there and Yoeli was like a bulldozer. Masay would float to the basket, Yoeli was a powerhouse.”

Kara Childs poses for a picture with her sons, Yoeli and Masay.
Kara Childs poses for a picture with her sons, Yoeli and Masay.
Photo courtesy Kara Childs

But it was Yoeli who was impassioned by the game. His first spoken word was not “mom” or “dad” — it was “ball.” He began playing organized basketball in third grade. As a boy, he would stand on a chair and tell his mom, “Can you imagine that I’m going to be this much taller than you?” Kara was skeptical — neither she nor her ex-husband are tall, although they come from tall stock (Kara says the boys’ father has uncles close to 7 feet, and Kara’s father and brothers are tall).

“I think Yoeli willed himself to grow,” says Kara. “He’d lay in bed and tell himself to grow.” Yoeli grew to be 6-foot-8, Masay 6-5.

As a high school senior, Yoeli was included on ESPN’s list of the top 100 high school players in the country, and he had his pick of a number of big schools. Kara has never made a secret of her disappointment that he chose to attend BYU rather than one of the out-of-state schools. She has been trying to move to another state since high school.

“I was hoping with these offers from around the country, I’d move,” she says. “Wherever he was going, I was going. I can get a math job anywhere. Then he chose BYU and I thought, I’m never getting out of here!”

Brigham Young Cougars forward Yoeli Childs (23) shoots the ball during the BYU vs. Northwestern State basketball game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018.
BYU forward Yoeli Childs shoots the ball during game against Northwestern State at the Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

She fretted that he would join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while at BYU, which is exactly what he did. Yoeli did not grow up as a member of that faith, but he lived as if he did. “He didn’t want to party or drink or chase girls,” Kara recalls. “He was just a good kid. He was just a 7-year-old in a man’s body — he was always an old soul. He always has a plan. He doesn’t make decisions rashly. He thinks things through and knows what he wants. That was a comfort to me when he made his choices. He has had his life planned since he was little.”

When cleaning house, Kara would find lists in Yoeli’s room — "My Goals for My Sophomore Year” — and they would consist of things he was going to accomplish. Each year he would make a new list. “What kid does this?” says Kara. “He was always driven.”

She pauses, then continues: “Being on AAU teams is a lot of work for those kids. I never had to push him to get up for practice. He was always ready and waiting. He never went out on Friday nights. We spent Friday nights together watching a show. The two of us. Masay was more social. Yoeli had friends, but he knew he had to get up the next morning.”

Kara’s job was made easier by the behavior of her sons. “They’re good kids. A lot of the problems other parents were having — I never had them. We were really open. Nothing was off limits about what we could talk about. There were no curfews. I knew they’d be home.”

Since being baptized into the church, Yoeli married Megan Boudreaux, a 6-foot-2 volleyball player at UVU whom he began dating when they were both students at Bingham High. She is apparently as driven by sports as her husband. During her senior year, she played in an all-day volleyball tournament, then afterward she and Yoeli changed into formal clothes at the gym, ate burgers at a drive-thru and went straight to prom.

“Megan brings a calmness,” to Yoeli. “He’s intense. She has tempered that a little bit.”

When asked about her son declaring for the NBA draft this spring, as he did last year without hiring an agent, Kara says, “It’s important to be growing.”

Looking back at the last two decades as a single mom, she recalls something she told her sons repeatedly as she raised them. “If I could line up all the kids in the entire world and pick just two, I’d pick you every single time.”

Says Kara, “This is something my boys have heard their entire lives. Yoeli and Masay are the best thing that has ever happened to me. They were and still are my two little best friends. We did everything together. We painted, fed the ducks, had living room dance parties, watched cartoons together, played basketball on the outdoor courts at school playgrounds on Sundays. We have traveled all over together for Yoeli’s basketball and made lasting memories. No matter how difficult life got, they gave me the energy and drive to accomplish everything that needed to get done for our little family. I’ll forever be grateful that I get to be the mom to these two sweet boys.”