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Meet Some of Our Students - Carmen



I believe my journey to Onward really started five years ago and it’s been a journey with many twists and turns. To get a true picture of who I am and how I ended up here, I guess I need to go back to my earlier years of education, unpleasant as it may be. I have always regretted not going to college, but my self-confidence was badly shaken, given the childhood I had. College was not a word mentioned to me. It was never really a thought. My brother, sisters and I had more to worry about then, like what we were going to eat and how we were going to survive. I missed huge portions of school growing up most days, I went only because there was free lunch and it’s what kept my siblings and me alive on many occasions. I had been in the hospital twice by the age of ten for severe malnutrition. I know we all have hard luck stories to tell, so I will just add mine to the list of many. My mother was an alcoholic as well as divorced. My father died when I was eight on my eighth birthday to be exact, and we were dirt poor. College seemed an impossible dream to achieve.

I moved out when I was sixteen, worked full-time while still trying to go to high school so I could support myself as well as my nine-year-old sister, who came to live with me. I ended up missing so much of high school I finally quit. After a couple of years, I did get my GED. Like most with limited education, I worked menial jobs, just getting by. I was married by the age of nineteen and had four children by the age of twenty-four. My marriage lasted for eighteen years, then for many reasons ended. I found myself on my own with four children to take care of and very little money. I soon found out that things could get much worse.

 About a year later I became ill and spent a year in and out of the hospital. No one seemed to be able to tell me what was wrong. It was at this time my marriage fell apart. Finally I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I still managed to continue working at my eight dollar an hour job and pay the bills; however I was sinking fast into a sea of debt and now I was dealing with my son being ill on top of all this. Wesley was diagnosed with Tourettes and needed medical care. Things were really falling apart. By this time I had a major flare-up with MS and lost the use of my hands. This put me out of work for longer than the six-week medical leave I was allowed, so I lost my job as well as my medical insurance that Wesley and I so desperately needed. I applied for Social Security as soon as that happened, but it takes six months of being ill before you are even considered. Finding myself without any income, I was forced to apply for welfare, something I swore to myself I would never do, as my mother spent many years living just that way.

I finally did get Social Security but not before my car was repossessed, all my savings were gone, my son was in desperate need of a Neurologist, and the bank foreclosed on my home. I was in a desperate situation and truly felt there was no way out. This is where my real journey to Onward began.
With no home I applied for Old Town housing where I met a woman, who informed me of the Onward program. Yet still I could not see myself with my limited education, ever being able to go to school, especially with a chronic illness. I felt the task impossible to accomplish. I took the brochure home with me, set it aside and did not look at it again for at least a year. I struggled along on Social Security, doing the best I could for my children with what meager means we had, but my depression grew and before I knew it I was wallowing in it. I didn’t even want to get out of bed in the mornings. The only thing that made me get up was my love for my children. I had told my children many times, “Use me as an example and make sure you go to college,” It was something I drilled into their heads using my life as an example, they understand how important college is for them. My oldest daughter Ashlee graduated from high school and is now in her second year of college. I am so proud of her. My son, Ryan was next in line for this task but he hated school. It was always a struggle for him; he had to work so hard. I encouraged him to do his best. He even spent an entire summer in school to finish credits so he could start his senior year. Life, as we all know, does not go how we expect though, and half- way through Ryan’s senior year he had a massive heart attack and died. All our hearts were broken. What do you do when a child goes before you? How was I to help my children through the loss of their brother? What do you do to make something like that easier? You can’t. It’s impossible, but life continues and you carry the scars with you, going on because you have three more children that need you.

Months passed until one day while cleaning out some drawers, I came across the brochure about the Onward Program. I tossed it on the counter along with some things I planned to throw out. My daughter Kayli came in, saw it picked it up and began reading it. She asked me, “Mom why don’t you check this program out?” I tried to explain to her that I had a limited education and several other reasons why I could not go to college. My daughter looked me right in the eye and said to me, “Mom, you taught us that we could be anything we set our minds to do. Are you going to tell me you expect more from us than you expect from yourself’. I will never forget those words. She really put icing on the cake, though, when she said to me, ” Mom, you should do it for Ryan. He would be a freshman in college this year at UMO. You could go for him; if you don’t want to, do it for yourself.” I waited until she left the room and then I cried. She was right, after all Ryan had such struggles in his life and school came so hard for him. Yet I coached him on, rallied as a cheerleader on the sidelines and despite all the adversity he faced, he kept going. If I wanted to set a true example for my children, I needed to step off the sidelines, step into life and let my actions speak louder than my words.

So here I am, full of insecurities, scared to death, wanting so much to accomplish the task of finishing college. Knowing Ryan is looking down from heaven saying, “go, mom go,” being my cheerleader as an angel now. I walk across campus thinking of him, knowing I am here in his place wanting to do this for him, wanting my other children to be proud and hoping like hell I make it.

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