MEDFORD - When she became homeless in fourth grade, Kyla Middleton stood up and told her class what happened, and she didn't get teased. Her classmates wanted to help, and Kyla led them on a letter-writing campaign to lawmakers.
That tells you a lot about Kyla, who is preternaturally poised, and about the nurturing community in West Medford, where her mother fought to remain during the year they spent homeless.
Another thing: Kyla can sing. "When she was about 18 months old, she would hear something on the radio, and by the second verse, she owned it," said her mother, Cheryl Middleton. Today, at 13, Kyla has a soaring, soulful voice that fills a concert hall and makes one wonder if there's an adult - Jennifer Hudson, perhaps, of recent "American Idol" and "Dreamgirls" fame - behind the curtain.
The combination has made Kyla a well-traveled advocate for the homeless and a recording artist. The eighth-grader tours New England to tell school and college audiences what it's like to have a blanket for a bedroom wall, or to try to do homework in one room housing a family of four. She teamed with Grammy Award-winner Dan Zanes to record a song for "Give Us Your Poor," a benefit album released last year that paired Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, and others with homeless and formerly homeless musicians.
"I speak because I want to break the stereotypes of homelessness," said Kyla, who steadily attended school while living in a shelter. She aspires to be president, to direct more money and awareness toward affordable housing and social services.
Today she will rejoin Zanes for a Dan Zanes and Friends concert at the Somerville Theatre at 11 a.m.
The "Give Us Your Poor" CD and a pending documentary grew out of an organization with the same name at the University of Massachusetts at Boston that tries to dispel myths about homelessness and inspire action. Kyla's duet with Zanes, a cover of Leadbelly's "Boll Weevil," has a chorus about finding a home. A music critic for the St. Petersburg Times called it the reason to buy the album: "We're still trying to compose ourselves after hearing" it, Sean Daly wrote, noting that Kyla's voice "sounds way older than it should."
Kyla, her mother, and her brothers - Darion, now 11, and Kevin, 5 - lost their home in 2003. Cheryl Middleton had seen it coming after losing her legal-assistant job because of the demands, she said, of being a single mother. She warned the state she was sliding toward eviction, but officials were unable to help her before she hit bottom. Then, after the four were sharing a friend's mattress, the Department of Transitional Assistance placed the family in a Medford hotel where the state rented shelter space.
They stayed nearly a year. Middleton set an example by striving each day to right the situation. Kyla, whom she calls "my fill-in little mommy," in turn set an example for her brothers.
"I felt I had to be strong for them, because if they saw me crying and dealing with it in a hard way, they were going to follow and do the same thing," said Kyla, who would remind them that at least their kitchenless room had cable.
Middleton eventually qualified for Section 8, but it took her nearly a year to find an apartment in the community that met the requirements for the voucher program and had accepting landlords.
"I got a lot of the 'Section 8 phobia,' " said Middleton, who found a three-bedroom place with a yard for less than the state had been spending on the shelter. Today the 41-year-old works part-time at a law firm and is a board member of several organizations, including Medford Community Housing and the advocacy group Homes for Families. Middleton and her daughter first spoke at a Homes for Families legislative breakfast four years ago, discovering they shared an ability to stand before a crowd and represent the state's tens of thousands of homeless mothers and children.
Both are survivors, said Jacquie Whitaker, a local singer and family friend who has mentored Kyla. "Not only did Kyla get her voice from her mother, but she got her strength from her mom, too," Whitaker said. Kyla's father was present off and on until she was 7, the last time she saw him. When she was 11, she lost another male figure in her life, Kevin Johnson, father of her youngest brother; he died on Christmas night 2005, two days after being shot in Roxbury.
John McGah, executive director of Give Us Your Poor, met Kyla and her mother through Homes for Families. Each is a deeply affecting speaker and talented singer, he said. (Middleton sang with Natalie Merchant on the CD.) That Kyla - all 71 pounds of her - is so poised is even more impressive.
"She can one minute speak to her peers and be really articulate and confident, and on the other hand go to the State House or a Homes for Families conference and tell her story and advocate for more low-income housing and you think, wow," he said. Then you see Kyla playing at a pizza party, or swinging her legs under her chair at an interview, "and you realize she's just a sweet, fun kid who's a real kid."
Kyla will perform at a Give Us Your Poor benefit auction in Wayland May 1.
She sang at a similar benefit last year, joining Greek tenor Mario Frangoulis for a duet of "Imagine." Afterward, Frangoulis asked her to remain onstage and presented a surprise: a $20,000 college scholarship from the Horatio Alger Association.
It's years away, but Kyla is already thinking about what she will study in college. Politics and human services, she said. And music.
Whitaker looked on admiringly. "The first singing president," she said.
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.