Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The High Cost of Transportation: When Showing Up is Half the Battle

This post was originally written for DC Alliance of Youth Advoactes: DCAYA on their blog, Youth Friendly DC by The Hope's Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy, Patricia DeFerrari.

Whitney is an unassuming, quiet but friendly young woman who, like her peers, has earplugs in her ears more often than not.  But don’t be fooled by her appearances.  She is a very determined young woman. She is not yet 19 years old, but she is already a mother, working hard to move from transitional housing and dependence on TANF assistance to employment that will allow her to provide for herself and her child.  She earned her GED last September, but she knows to get a job that pays enough to sustain her and her child, she needs college and/or a postsecondary credential.  That’s why she’s enrolled in bridge-to-college classes at Academy of Hope.

When Whitney first enrolled at Academy of Hope, she was part of a DOES-funded GED program for youth that included a transportation stipend.  For Whitney, this meant that she could take the Metro from her transitional housing in South East DC to Edgewood Terrace near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro, where Academy of Hope’s Strive for Success classes were held.  It took about 45 minutes and cost between $2.05 and $4.10 each way. The cost, of course, depended on the time of day she traveled (peak times to get to school, non-peak to get back home) and whether she took a bus to school from the Rhode Island Metro or chose to take the 10-minute walk.  When funding for transportation stipends ended, Whitney’s commute to school became both a financial burden and a larger time commitment.  In order to save money, Whitney no longer rides the Metro. She takes a couple of buses and spends more than an hour traveling each way.  The trip costs $1.60 each way, which amounts to $3.20 a day, $12.80 for the four days of class a week and $16.00 a week if she comes in for tutoring on Friday.  The extra 15-20 minutes commuting each way adds more than a couple of hours a week.
To those of us with salaried jobs, whether middle wages or high end, $16 a week doesn’t sound like all that much money, but put it in context.  $16 a week is $48 a month. Whitney’s total income for the month is $336, which she receives through TANF.  A third of that goes to rent at the transitional house where she is living.  That leaves $216 for everything else, including food, diapers for the baby, clothing, personal hygiene, transportation, etc. for the month.  Whitney feels lucky because she’s healthy and her baby’s healthy, so she doesn’t have to decide between medicine and transportation. She is determined to get the education she needs for a better life for herself and her daughter.

There are other students who don’t have even the minimal income of TANF or supportive housing who struggle to meet their basic needs, who live even farther away from school or have more family members dependent on them. These students end up dropping out of school because they simply cannot win the battle of showing up to class. Providing assistance, such  as a transportation stipend or extending Kids Ride Free, will break down a major barrier that prevents non-traditional students, such as Whitney, from breaking the cycle of poverty. Whitney is making the commitment to show up to class and better her situation. Now it's the city's turn to ease Whitney's ride to school so she may continue changing her life not only for herself, but for child.

Patricia DeFerrari is the Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Academy of Hope. Patricia works to ensure DC is a more equitable and prosperous city by speaking up for adults with low literacy. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Coming Back Home: Loucace’s Story

Loucace Ampe is far away from her roots in West Africa but found “home” at The Hope. Eighteen years ago she moved to the United States from the Ivory Coast. When she left Africa, she left school behind.
Her primary language is French and she learned English on-the-go when she came to DC, through soap operas like “Days of Our Lives”.
Continuing her education was always on her mind after moving to DC, although the challenges of getting loans for school and the pressures of work kept her from fulfilling her education. “I just put my education on the back burner,” she commented.
Then, her two children and a husband made time fly by. Nearly two decades passed until Loucace finally took the courageous step to continue her education. She and a close friend decided together it was time but didn't know where to start. So like so many who are looking for information, they looked online and stumbled upon The Hope’s program.
“The Academy of Hope is like coming home to me because when you are home you feel comfortable. There are no barriers, all your mindset and fears, your doubts, everything you have to put it down. When you come here you put it all down,” she said.
In just a year and a half Loucace conquered the General Education Development (GED), and graduated at The Hope’s May ceremony.
“I was challenged with math because how fractions are done there and here are different,” she said about her first months at The Hope. “I didn't think I would learn that much after [not being in school] for 18 years, and I didn't think that everything would rush back to me. But the people here were tremendous help to me.”
While it was always in her heart to go to college, it became even more important when her two children started school. She has an eight and eleven year old, and she wanted to be able to help them with their homework.
“My 11 year old wants to be a biologist, he loves science. And my little one is a complete artist, he has multiple facets; he can sing, he can read, he is everywhere, so I really dont know what he will do. He is very creative.”
When Loucace was working on algebra, her son was as well. They would do their homework together at the kitchen table. “We would help each other.”
But at first, she wasn't excited about her education like she is now, two years later.
“At the beginning I was feeling really bad, ‘I was like man look at me at this age, going to college at his age, what am I going to tell my kids?”
“So I got stuck in that mentality for a while. I didn't even tell them I was going to school. But after my mentor talked to me and I saw adults in the college with me I thought ‘wow this is amazing, I’m not alone, why should I feel bad?’”
Her kids were supportive when she opened up to them, came to her graduation and are now cheering her on at college. Loucace’s husband is a doctorate in ministry and has been her backbone through her education journey thus far.  And it isn't done.
She is currently at University of the District of Columbia (UDC) starting her bachelors degree. She hasn't decided yet what she will major in but she is interested in working with people and computers.
Not only is she taking five classes right now, juggling work and family…she also won a scholarship that helps her with tuition.
While Louace loves being at UDC, she says she misses coming to The Hope.
“The lady at the front desk the first day had a huge smile on her face; she still has the same attitude. She smiles every day. It’s amazing. The teaching material is awesome. It covers everything from one plus one to how to open a bank account… what else could you ask for?”
“I mean, like I said, coming back here is like coming home.”
When Louace was asked what she would tell other students who are going back to school, she said “it's never too late and I really thank God for all of [The Hope staff]. I wish I could help all your wishes to come true like you made mine,” she said with a smile.