Rising Above

Rising Above

How Rockville's Nichole Land overcame countless challenges in her young life.

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Nichole Land woke at 5 a.m. on July 17, 2014, to the sound of her front door being kicked in. She saw a sea of flashlights, heard a chorus of shouts: “Get your hands up! Don’t touch anything!”  

Montgomery County police had entered the small four-bedroom Rockville home she shared with her parents and several of her eight siblings as part of a marijuana investigation involving one of her brothers. When they arrived, they found Land’s autistic twin brothers, Derrick and Darnell, who were 22 at the time, locked in an empty room in the basement.

Police handcuffed everyone in the family, Land says. Officers took her parents, John and Janice, into custody, charging them with two counts of abuse of vulnerable adults and two counts of false imprisonment. They took the twins with them, too. The house was condemned for violations such as nonfunctioning smoke detectors, Land says.

A sign duct-taped to the door read: Do Not Enter.

Just weeks earlier, Land, then 29, had started a new job as a constituent relations assistant at Interfaith Works, a nonprofit organization that helps the county’s poor and homeless residents. It seemed like her life was on track. She was about to earn her bachelor’s degree from a University of Maryland program at The Universities at Shady Grove (USG), making her the first college graduate in her immediate family. She’d been living at home with her parents, helping to care for her younger brothers and sisters, and had finally saved money for an apartment. Now her parents, whom Land had always viewed as her providers and protectors, were under arrest.

Land gathered her younger siblings, who ranged in age from their late teens to mid-20s, and drove them to a nearby hotel to await news about her mom and dad. She used the money she’d been saving to pay for a hotel room, and later to bail her parents out of jail. She tried to avoid the news reports, but couldn’t help reading the headlines about her parents imprisoning her brothers in a “dungeon-like” room. She felt powerless as she thought about how the media was getting it wrong, how nobody understood what her family had really been through to keep her brothers safe and healthy. She thought about how close she was to attaining her dreams, and what this meant for the future.

A year later, Land is sitting in her neat, bright apartment overlooking the Twinbrook Metro station in Rockville. She’s placed grapes and quartered muffins on the kitchen counter to offer guests, along with bottles of cold water.

Land has big brown eyes and speaks with a calm, measured voice that hints at the time she spent as a customer service representative for a real estate company. She’s wearing a dress with a brown floral pattern and turquoise trim, and delicate turquoise earrings to match.

“The view is amazing,” she says with a smile. “I love watching people coming and going as they start and finish their days. And it’s quiet. I love the quietness here.”

For Land, being here represents a milestone she’s worked years to achieve. Growing up, her family relied on government assistance and help from local nonprofits. At one point they lived in a public housing project in Silver Spring—12 people in an apartment with two bedrooms and one bathroom. Land’s father, John, was and still is a building service manager for Montgomery County Public Schools, and her mother, Janice, stayed home with the children. Groceries came from Manna Food Center; beds from A Wider Circle.

Nichole Land, whose family relied on public assistance when she was growing up, moved into her own apartment last summer. It's a milestone she's worked years to achieve.  Photo by Michael Ventura.

At a young age, Land, the second oldest, was doing chores and learning how to change diapers and feed a baby. She’d go with her mother to school conferences for her siblings when her father had to work. “I’m the oldest of the family, but she’s the one who’s like a second mom to them,” says her sister, Chastity Jones, who became pregnant as a teenager and moved out of the family home when Land was in elementary school.

Her responsibilities grew when her twin brothers, born when Land was 9, were diagnosed with autism as toddlers. Land says she and her siblings were constantly monitoring them to make sure they weren’t running away or “tearing something apart.” She recalls watching in amazement as her mom worked to ensure that they stayed in the right schools, aftercare programs and summer camps, took them to appointments with specialists, and somehow remained patient when caring for them.

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