BY MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN
Getting a high school and college degree and achieving the American Dream could easily have seemed impossible to eighteen-year-old Toni Thomas.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Cass learned when she met Toni and her mother while on assignment for the Children’s Defense Fund, Toni grew up moving from place to place in poor neighborhoods in a once booming but now poor city. Her mother, Linda Dinwiddie, describes herself as “lost in drugs for a long time.”
Goal – graduation
Extended family gave what support they could – especially Toni’s grandmother, who died several years ago – but Toni and her sister, who is now 26, often scraped by on their own. Throughout it all, Toni kept one goal in mind: “I wanted to graduate from high school on time.”
During Toni’s junior year, her mother Linda was gone – first hospitalized with asthma attacks and blood clots, and then staying in a residential drug treatment facility. Before their mother left, they’d been living in an abandoned house that their cousin had lost in a foreclosure. Toni and her sister continued to live there while their mother was gone. The utilities had been shut off although someone in the neighborhood illegally hooked up the electricity for the stove and small heaters.
“In the wintertime, we’d scoop up snow to get water, put it in pots and boil it so it would be like sterilized,” she said. At the end of the month when the food stamps ran out, “we tried to get food any way we could or go to somebody’s house,” she said. Sometimes, Toni would spend the night with one of her two closest friends and go to school from there.
At one point she failed three classes but took them over in summer school so she could graduate on time. Then she got in trouble for fighting and transferred to West Side Academy, an alternative school. There, she got on the student council, went to Lansing for a student government meeting, and met the governor.
Interest in engineering
A science teacher encouraged her to join the robotics team where students build robots and compete with teams from other schools. “I’d go after school and on weekends helping build the robots,” she said. “That’s how I got interested in engineering.”
In May 2010 after Linda got out of the treatment facility, Toni and her mother moved into Mom’s Place, part of Cass Community Social Services. Linda said she is very proud of Toni for not getting into trouble and for finishing school “in spite of what I put her through. She kept herself together.”
Last summer, Toni got an AmeriCorps job with the Detroit Parent Network, going door to door giving information about the organization. It provided a salary and $1,100 towards college.
Toni has a distance to go to graduate from college with an engineering degree. West Side Academy is one of Detroit’s 44 persistently low-achieving schools, and in her first year in community college, she is taking mostly remedial courses, including pre-algebra. “I’m not sure I can handle it, but I’m going to try my best,” she said of college.
Countless other struggling children have not been able to overcome the same odds the way Toni has and have been sucked into our nation’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline™. The AmeriCorps program and a caring teacher made a difference in Toni’s life. How many young people will never get the chance to see how far their best can take them?
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund (www.childrensdefense.org).