I am a teacher, a student, a mother, and an advisor. I also grew up in poverty. When I joined a two-generation program called JeffCo Prosperity Project (JPP) that supports children from Head Start to graduation, I did it to help other families – but ended up finding myself in the process. I was asked by my new coach: “what do you want for yourself?”
It was the first time in my life someone had asked me what I wanted and meant it.
In Medicaid, housing, even college, I was just a number. To my coach, I was a person who needed support. I am writing to you because it is so important that policymakers, presidential candidates, and those in power – regardless of political affiliation – hear the needs and recommendations of American families.
Policymakers, I am sure that your job is never ending and can be tiring, but families like mine need someone to speak on our behalf. I urge you to encourage families to sit at your tables to help create policies that better suit them. Listen and provide families the opportunity to speak and be fully engaged in your decisions about their lives.
There is an urgency to make sure all our systems are equitable, which is not currently at the forefront of our nation’s efforts, and I understand that also requires changing minds and systems; that is not simple nor an instant repair. Equity to me is giving individuals a boost to even the playing field so everyone has an “equal” opportunity and starting point. What if barriers like predatory college recruitment and a lack of access to information were never there in the first place? How would that individual succeed if opportunities were presented at the right time or point in their life? Legislators, policymakers, candidates: I would like to be a part of your journey – and share a little bit of mine.
1. A coach can make a world of difference.
I didn’t come from an All-American, two-parent household. I was raised by my grandmother who was raising four generations. She attempted to provide meals for everyone who walked through her door. My grandmother was rich socially, but she was never rich monetarily. My environment consisted of drugs, alcohol, rape, neglect, and abuse. Of all the obstacles I have had to face, poverty is the obstacle that has stuck with me the longest. My family and I weren’t prepared for life.
My grandmother was one of the most amazing women that I have ever known and unfortunately cancer and Parkinson’s disease took her life when I was around 8 or 9. Around this time I loved school and had hopes of being a judge, dancer or a meteorologist. As I grew and matured, I continued to look for love in all the wrong places, I became a teenage mother at age 14, and I dropped out of high school. I earned my GED and didn’t really know where to go from there. I stumbled through the next couple of years trying to follow the right path to success, but I had never met anyone who had found that path. I knew I wanted a better life for myself and my child.
Having a model in your life can be a critical piece of one’s growth. Coaches are necessary, especially in systems that families need to utilize at some point in their lives with no intention of using those systems forever, but also with no clue how to move forward when they are faced with chronic stress.
Two great things that happened to me were becoming a mother again to a boy, and two years later, a little girl. Yet I truly believed that I was incapable of being successful beyond parenting, and was slowly losing myself in the process. I always maintained a job with steady income and I utilized the resources provided by the local state agencies which were greatly appreciated at that time. I continued to find resources to move forward even though I felt like I was constantly moving backwards. A coach early on could have supported me in navigating these systems, and helped me to understand my strengths, skills, and talents.
2. Predatory colleges need to be held accountable.
I made some poor choices in colleges, especially in choosing DeVry University. Being a first-generation college student was exciting to me. I received a call from someone who was from DeVry: they asked me if I wanted to go to college and receive a degree to better my children’s life. My answer of course was Yes! I had no knowledge of what I was doing and what paperwork I was signing but I knew I wanted to get an education and provide a more financially stable life for my children and I believed obtaining a college education would help me do so. I worked full-time at Jefferson Head Start and went to school.
After two years, I was pulled into the office by my advisor and told that I had maxed out on my loans and that I would have to pay out of pocket in order to complete my last year. I left that office with a feeling a failure, disappointment, and loss.
Predatory colleges must be held accountable for how they advertise. Institutions need to be fully invested in the students they recruit. Accountability should be a mandatory value for the education and services students are getting, due to the money and time they spend while trying to pursue their college education.
I have now completed my associate’s degree and am now trying to find scholarships to get my bachelor’s in social work with a minor in public policy. There is a big fear for me that I will not be able to finish because of the poor choices I made with DeVry University since I currently have no Pell grant assistance or loans that I can access. I am solely relying on my efforts to receive scholarships to complete school.
What if I would have had a coach when I walked into the University office? I am sure I wouldn’t be in this predicament today.
3. Support the whole family.
Over the last couple of years, I have made a conscious decision to change my life for the better even though I felt defeated at every turn. I graduated from cosmetology school and was excited to start a career but couldn’t afford my exit bill. I began volunteering for Jefferson County Head Start again, which takes a two-generation approach to its programming, and soon after was hired as a teacher’s associate. My biggest supports were from Head Start, recent friends, and a small amount of family. I have learned so much about myself and my children. Being a teacher helped me understand the value of relationships, education and support.
The two-generation approach, which focuses on both children and their caregivers, gives families the opportunity to move forward toward healthy, thriving lives, while thinking about their own goals and including their kids at the same time. This approach doesn’t just support us, it inspires us, enlightens us, and gives families hope. When allowing families or individuals to receive wraparound supports concerning mental health and quality education, we are creating an environment where they can grow and thrive.
Being a participant of JPP helped me when I thought I would have never made it at some points. Like when I went from having three to six kids, from two months old to 15 years old – overnight, as I took on a relative’s children due to drugs plaguing my family. Both organizations wrapped around my family and assisted us in that major transition.
When I was driving a sedan, JPP partnered with a company that helps single moms get into vehicles and they upgraded my car to a van so had I reliable transportation. The other families offered me support at meetings. Head Start accepted two of the children under my care and they went to full day classroom so I could work. There was also mental health support available to the kids as soon as they got there, and one started receiving special education services that were offered during the class. My coach offered to watch the kids while I finished my final exam.
It was like they were filling the holes I had a hard time filling because I was just in survival mode.
Families or individuals who have a late start can still finish strong. I have been faced with a lot of adversity, but with proper support and education I can complete the race strong – I intend to.
When families are involved in the process, they are more likely to succeed within the process and want to see it be successful. They may say things you don’t want to hear, but maybe they are saying things that you need to hear. I hope that the days ahead are filled with successes as well as times of uncomfortable moments. If we are not uncomfortable, we are not growing.
Rynn Bell is a parent support provider at the SafeCare Colorado Family Tree. She is also a parent advisor for the Aspen Postsecondary Success for Parents Initiative.