Michelle Jones has seen more trouble in the past 13 years than many people see in a lifetime. She married and had a baby as a teenager, only to find her husband grow dangerously abusive. Fleeing with her daughter, she got little support from her family and bounced around, virtually homeless, descending -- for a time -- into poverty and unemployment.
"My twenties were explosive," is how Jones, 31, sums it up. But her thirties are looking excellent.
She graduates with honors this week from Montgomery College and is heading off in the fall to the University of Maryland, where she plans to get a degree in social work. She juggles school and single motherhood with her job at a nursing home and still finds time to volunteer, mentoring others who find themselves in desperate circumstances.
Last week, she was recognized for her triumph over adversity, receiving a $1,000 scholarship, called the "Bernie," from an unusual fund created specifically to help residents of publicly assisted housing further their education. Jones was one of 16 recipients of the award this year, and each one had similar stories of setbacks and barriers and, ultimately, success in overcoming them.
"The recipients this year are marked by persistence, courage, motivation and determination," Judy Madden, a Bernie fund board member, said at a small ceremony in Olney on Friday. "They set their eyes on education and have not wavered despite significant obstacles."
Some of the awards went to high school seniors, such as Kevin Fortis, 18, of Gaithersburg High School, who worked his way out of special education classes into a rigorous academic program, and Gloria Lopez, 17, of Magruder High School, who attended the award ceremony with her young son and cried as she thanked her parents for sticking by her when "I made my couple of mistakes."
Many of the recipients, though, were older students who had combated difficulties in getting their education on track.
Kayleeta Whitfield, for example, had an alcoholic mother and drug-addicted relatives and was often told, she said, that she would never amount to much. Now a single mother with a 4-year-old son, Whitfield, 26, has been accepted to Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, and hopes to become a pediatric nurse practitioner.
"I hope people will realize that just because you don't come from an ideal home doesn't mean you can't succeed," she said.
The fund was created seven years ago, when Bernard Tetrault retired after 24 years as executive director of Montgomery County's Housing Opportunities Commission. Friends and colleagues donated about $30,000, and Tetrault decided it should be used to help HOC tenants pursue an education.
One of nine children, Tetrault saw how his parents struggled to find a way for every child to get to college. "That's my vision for people who live in affordable housing," Tetrault said. "To look them in the eye and say, 'You go to college; we'll find some way to do it.' "
A group of Tetrault's friends formed a board of directors and invested the money with the Montgomery County Community Foundation. The formal name of the fund is the Education Awards Program of Montgomery County but its nickname, like Tetrault's, is Bernie. The Bernie board realized that a $30,000 fund could not provide tuition for even one recipient so they set out to provide smaller awards that could nonetheless be decisive in someone's ability to go to college.
"We're a niche," said the Rev. Lon Dring, president of the fund. "We want to provide the little things that tip the balance that aren't noticed by a lot of scholarship programs: a person's gas or transportation or baby-sitting or books. We had one lady who was in such trouble she couldn't afford $350 for books. It made the difference between her going to school and not being able to."
For the first several years of its existence, the fund gave scholarships to no more than five or six people each year. But contributors have continued to make donations to the fund, so that it has now grown to about $60,000, and the board decided to expand the number of recipients. This year they gave awards to 16 of the 17 people who applied.
"They were all so inspiring," said Joyce Siegel, a board member. "In each case, we felt we could make a difference."
With last week's awards, the Bernie has helped 47 people, including three young women who are repeat winners. When Chevonne Mansfield, 20, collected her third Bernie award last week, she said it would be her last time as a recipient. With just a year left until her graduation from St. John's University, Mansfield has secured a part-time job with the New York Knicks and looks forward to a career in public relations.
Some of the other past recipients have graduated from college and are succeeding in a variety of careers. Tetrault predicts similar success for this year's recipients. "The drive they have to overcome what they've overcome is a key ingredient to success," Tetrault said.
Board members say that in interviewing candidates for the award, they give a slight edge to those seeking careers in public service, so most of the recipients are pursuing degrees in teaching, health care, social work or public sector management. Sherry Ugochukwu impressed the board with the strength of her vision. The 24-year-old Bowie State University student hopes to become a clinical psychologist -- a major she chose after volunteering as a mentor for young women. But she has an even bigger dream.
"Young people are my passion," she said. "There are so many things they're doing that are positive and I want to bring that out. I have this idea to start up a university in the inner city. It would be free for inner-city kids. I'd call it Youth for U."
Tetrault estimates that he helped establish 25,000 units of affordable housing in his 24 years at HOC. But he says helping people like Ugochukwu realize their dreams is at least as rewarding.
"As much as there are buildings that I've had a part in constructing, I also will leave this behind," he said. "It gives me as much if not more pleasure to help in this way."