Sept. 4 is a special day in the Fuller home. It's not someone's birthday or anniversary. It's more important than that.
On that day in 1999, then 18-year-old Jeremy McCray got a new family.
"We didn't realize how important September 4th was to Jeremy, but every year it's like, 'What are we going to do to celebrate?' " Jeremy's new mother, Barbara Fuller, says. "It's like a national holiday for us now. We go on a cruise or we go on vacation or we go on a special dinner."
Jeremy, who has Down syndrome and is 32 years old, has achieved many milestones since he joined the Fuller family. The latest was earning his black belt in karate late last month.
He's been working toward that goal for five years, taking private lessons at Howden's Kenpo Academy, a small studio in a strip mall on East 22nd Street that he pays for with money earned from his job washing cars at Jim Click Ford, through the Beacon Group.
Jeremy takes only one 30-minute lesson each Friday, but he practices up to four times a week on his own in a cul-de-sac near his east-side home.
At his black belt ceremony, he demonstrated powerful punches and kicks and a multistep kata. Though he had to be reminded with which hand to start a few times, he executed each move with pure confidence.
"He is very disciplined. He is very dedicated. He picks up on stuff just as fast as everybody else does," says karate instructor Jeremy Howden.
Jeremy says the accomplishment made him feel proud, especially because one of his younger brothers, who was killed in a car accident, also had a black belt.
• • •
Jeremy McCray is a Southern boy, born in South Carolina, raised in Georgia.
Although he's called Tucson home for more than a decade, he's never lost that Southern charm. He politely answers questions with "yes, ma'am" and "no, ma'am," and holds doors open for people.
When he was 16, Jeremy's mother and stepfather were killed in a car crash that forever fractured his family. Jeremy and his brother went to live with family in Scottsdale. His half-brother went to live with his mother.
Jeremy first entered Barbara Fuller's life in 1997 when she was teaching special-education classes at Sahuaro High School.
He had just been placed in a group home for people with special needs on Tucson's east side.
"He was a really sweet student, but he didn't talk when he first came to school," Barbara says of Jeremy, who was 17 when he enrolled in her class.
When she called the house manager of the home Jeremy was living in, Barbara learned her boyish student was living with all adult men.
The minute she heard that, she knew. He needed a family.
"He was a really sweet boy. He was really polite, and he was a hard worker in class, did everything you asked him to do," Barbara says. "We would go and visit him, and these guys were in their 50s and 40s, and they had nothing in common."
In the '80s the couple had adopted twin 11-year-old girls, who were out of the house now. The couple had an extra bedroom and some firsthand knowledge of taking in someone who already had interests, preferences and a fully formed personality. Barbara already had a connection with Jeremy, so she called her husband, Arne, an instructor at Cochise College, and suggested they invite Jeremy to live with them.
He agreed without hesitation.
"She got to know him better than I did, of course, but I trusted her judgment," Arne says. "I've never regretted it."
Seven months later the couple became, officially, Jeremy's adult developmental home providers. In their hearts, the connection is profound - and permanent.
"We are a family. We love together. We argue together. We do everything families do," Barbara says.
Jeremy calls Barbara "Mudder," a play on the word mother, and Arne is "Pops."
"Originally, the thing was, you have a mother in heaven and you have a mother on Earth, and you'll always have your mom looking over you, but I'm here to help you."
To celebrate Jeremy's black belt, the family and Jeremy's longtime girlfriend Jasmine Hensley, went out for burgers and frozen custard at Culver's.
Barbara frequently takes the couple out on dates to the movies or out to eat. Jasmine enjoys clipping coupons, so she usually picks the place.
The couple met 13 years ago at a social for teens with special needs, hosted by Tucson Parks and Recreation, and they've been together ever since.
Once a month, they go dancing at Armory Park.
They enjoy all sorts of music, just not rap and hip- hop, Jeremy says.
Something else he proudly shares: He washed "a lot" of cars to save up enough money to buy her a promise ring.
Jasmine says the secret to making their relationship last is that Jeremy always makes her laugh.
When the family visited the Cayman Islands on a cruise, Jeremy got a tattoo of the Chinese symbol for "love" because that's what he feels for Jasmine.
• • •
The Cayman Islands trip was one of seven cruises Jeremy and his family have gone on together.
They also take trips to visit Fuller and McCray family members in various states.
Each time Jeremy goes on a trip, his work supervisor, Raydene Trejo loses her right-hand man.
"I'll tell you what," Raydene says. "My week feels like almost two weeks when he's gone."
While at work, the spray gun belongs to Jeremy. For 12 years it's been his job to hose down cars.
"I wash cars," he says. "Make it nice, make it clean."
He's pretty much the only employee his boss trusts to spray down cars with a pressure washer.
"There ain't nobody who can spray like Jeremy," she says. "I mean, the way he takes that hose, he can control it, and it's not that easy. I've done it … he was on vacation one time and I didn't have anybody really that was here that I could trust because you have to be careful. The tip of that gun can scratch these vehicles, and I'm responsible for that."
Though using the pressure washer leaves Raydene with sore arms, Jeremy says it's a breeze for him.
"Jeremy's just an outstanding, outstanding, outstanding guy," she says.
Jeremy is Raydene's "powerhouse" and has become family, too. As he does with Barbara, he calls Raydene mom.
He frequently calls her to chat about what's going on in his life outside of work. She reminds him to blow his nose and makes sure he's got a hat on and his "eyeballs" - that's what he calls his glasses - if he takes a break to grab some food or a drink away from the lot.
Jeremy also makes sure everybody is in good spirits, Raydene says.
He notices when other crew members aren't in the best of moods and asks what's bothering them.
He'll try to make anybody laugh. "He wants everybody happy … no matter what," Raydene says. "Even if he doesn't get along with the person, he wants to see a smile on everybody's face."
That thoughtfulness is what Barbara appreciates most about Jeremy.
Even after spending hours working in the sun, he comes home and helps around the house. He waters plants in the yard, cleans up the dogs' messes and faithfully takes out the trash, all without being asked.
Before Barbara goes to bed each night, Jeremy makes sure the light by her side of the bed is turned on so she doesn't trip over anything.
"It's just the little things. A lot of people don't have that love in them," she says. "He has so many ways that he shows his love for us. We just want to give as much as we get."
Contact reporter Veronica Cruz at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 573-4224.