On the path she chose

Posted by Sarah Welch on Aug 15, 2019 2:48:22 PM

Monae Woods landscape arms crossed

At 5 a.m., Monae Woods’ alarm clock goes off. She sits up in bed, reaches to the wall behind her without looking, and pulls off a sticky note with a handwritten quote. The quote might say, “get it done,” and that sets the tone for her day. The 18-year-old meditates, prays, takes a cold shower, and listens to motivational speakers while cleaning her room. Then she gets ready for work at Principal as an intern working on communications projects.

This life is far different than what she experienced last December, living in her car without heat, huddled in blankets, trying to find a job that would pay her bills while she finished high school. 

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Studying incredibly long hours, and with last-minute support from United Way, Monae achieved one of her goals in May: walking across the stage at graduation.

Monae 1

“No one in my family has graduated,” she said with tears in her eyes and a beaming smile as she sat in her cap and gown at the Hoover High School cafeteria the day before her graduation ceremony. “It was a lot of work. It was hard. But it was worth it.”

Determined to stay

Growing up, Monae’s family moved about every six months whenever her mom was ready to live somewhere else. By the time her family moved to Des Moines and Monae joined Meredith Middle School in seventh grade, she had attended 15 schools.

“I stopped making friends, because I knew I was going to move,” she says.

She also felt constantly behind after she failed a year-end test in third grade and was forced to repeat the grade.

“Everybody was moving up, and I was going backward,” she says. “That stayed with me a lot. I was like, ‘I’m going to get back to my right grade.’”

This time, Monae was determined to stay put in Des Moines and to get ahead to graduate by her junior year with her peers. She began to make friends. She took extra classes during eighth grade. Then, before the end of that year, an incident caused the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS) to take her into custody. She was sent to live with her dad 12 hours away in Indiana. She hardly knew her dad and resented him for trying to raise her. They had several major fights.

The summer before freshman year, Monae left her dad's place and went to live at Youth Emergency Services & Shelter, a United Way-funded program in Des Moines, while her mom completed the steps needed to bring Monae back home.

When Monae finally moved back in with her mom 10 months later, she feared having to leave Des Moines and start all over again. Yet, she knew her mom wanted to move back to Indiana.

“I knew that she didn’t want to be here; she wanted to leave,” Monae said. “I didn’t want her to go through that situation again. I told her she could go, and I’d stay.”

Her mom made arrangements for Monae to live with her older sister before she moved. After six months living with her sister, Monae decided to get her own place, telling her mom after she’d arranged it.

Finding home

Life was difficult on her own. She worked from 4 p.m. until midnight six days a week and would be too tired to get up to go to school by 8 a.m. the next day.

“I’ve never been a school person,” Monae says. “It’s always work, because I have to pay my bills. School is not going to pay my bills.”

When her junior year began, Monae wanted to make it to graduation, so she could focus on getting a better-paying job and become more financially stable in her life. She had just completed an internship with Principal the summer before through iJag, a United Way-funded program that connects youth to job opportunities, and was hired by another department to work 30 hours a week. The job was just enough to cover rent for an apartment by bringing in a roommate.

She was still several credits away from graduating high school. Des Moines Public Schools’ Flex Academy, funded by United Way, allowed her to study at her own pace when she wasn’t at work, whether she was at home or in the school’s learning lab, with teachers available to ask questions. She appreciated that the teachers were happy to see her.

“They always worked with me, and they were understanding about my situation,” she says. “I never heard 'You are not going to graduate.' They just pushed me as much as they could.”

Listening to motivational speakers each morning, Monae took their advice to heart. She organized her bigger goals, like graduating from high school and getting a good job, into smaller steps she had to take each day. She would divide her English textbook into five sections and then wake up early to tackle one section at a time. On a color-coded spreadsheet, she kept track of all her bills so she knew what she needed to make.

Monae was on track when disaster struck: Her roommate took the $1,000 cash she’d saved up just before her rent was due. She couldn’t make up the difference and was evicted right after Christmas during the coldest days of winter. Monae put her things into storage and loaded up her car with blankets where she and another homeless friend stayed for several nights.

In the turmoil, she lost her job. She made it to school when she could, especially to have heat, but she also scrambled to find a job, finding it difficult without a high school diploma.

“I was limited on what I could do,” Monae says. “I wanted to work, but every job I seemed to find kept denying me.”

She eventually found a job at Price Chopper and rented another place with a different roommate. Her roommate was helping her cover rent until she could earn enough to cover her portion. But then she reached a point in April where she wouldn’t be paid for two more weeks and her roommate couldn’t cover her half. Her mom was already paying for Monae’s graduation expenses and traveling to Des Moines to celebrate.

And Monae was still several credits away from being able to graduate.

“I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to take off work and I’m going to go to school until graduation, and I was just hoping in some magical way, I could find some money to pay my rent.”

In early May, Gretchen Critelli, community school coordinator at Hoover, told Monae about an opportunity from United Way to receive support, so she could focus on getting to graduation. At first, Monae didn’t want to ask for help. She’d never accepted help before.

“I didn’t want to,” Monae says. “I don’t ask people for a lot. I barely ask my mom for money. I don’t ask people for stuff because I have a thing that if you don’t get it yourself, you don’t have anything. You have to work for it, and if you work for it, no one can say they gave it to you.”

Her mom encouraged her to accept the offer. Monae asked for help with one month’s rent. United Way stepped in to cover it.

The extra boost allowed Monae to prioritize school. She showed up in the lab for nine hours every day and worked on completing the last of her credits. Because she’d already been studying throughout the year, she was able to complete her last assignments for several classes quickly. With funding from United Way, the learning lab stayed open extra hours and provided food so students could continue to study rather than leave for lunch. At the last minute, Monae made the May 15 deadline.

“Now,” she says, “I can say, ‘I’m a Husky.’”

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Monae photos

Worth the journey

“This kind of support is life-changing,” says Gretchen about United Way’s push to help students who are on the cusp of graduating overcome those last-minute barriers. The students she supports at Hoover have a variety of obstacles to making it to class. Gretchen finds it most difficult to see students who must work to support themselves and their families and thus cannot make it to school during open hours.

“Monae lives by herself. She has her own place. She buys her own food. She does everything to get to work,” Gretchen says. “She’s living like an adult before she’s even graduated from high school.”

Monae worries her mom will be judged for leaving her in Des Moines. She hid her situation from many people until she turned 18, which just happened this August. But she wouldn’t want it any other way. Her mom is happier in a different city, and Monae was able to focus on what she needed to do to have more opportunities for her future.

She realizes many kids her age might have started partying or brushing off responsibilities, but Monae has always prioritized making money so she can support herself. By staying in Des Moines, she’s also had the chance to go to Washington, D.C., to build career readiness skills and get hired at Principal.

“I can survive on my own,” she says. “I have learned so much, and I have had so many opportunities.”

Her mom helped when she could, sending extra money and taking the 11-hour bus trip every two months to visit, in addition to talking by phone often. Monae also has found a support network from a teacher who she could trust to talk about her situation and through her iJag teacher who advocated for her to stay at Hoover when she was at risk of being kicked out. In addition, her dad’s mom has stayed in touch, inviting Monae to family gatherings and providing support when needed.

This summer, Monae is working full time in another internship at Principal through iJag. She has been pushing herself to become comfortable presenting and actively seeks feedback to become more professional in her work. She’s grown from being shy and keeping her head down to looking people in the eye with her wide eyes and thick lashes and moving her hands as she speaks with enthusiasm. Even in sweatpants on a weekend, her hair is neatly braided and pulled back into a ponytail, and she has on stud earrings, a bracelet, and a splash of color in her clothes, often yellow.

She has learned a lot about how to present herself and network, but she also recognizes how far she still must go to achieve her full potential. One smaller goal she’s set is to buy a reliable car at the end of the summer.

As she finishes her internship, she’s been applying to jobs, hoping to continue her experience in communications or work as an administrative assistant to gain experience. Not only has she seen the value of having a high school diploma, but she also recognizes that many jobs she’s working toward require a college degree. She’ll start classes for business full time at Des Moines Area Community College this fall in addition to finding a full-time job.

“Monae is someone who has had a lot of hardships in the past,” says her Flex Academy teacher Madison Greif, “but she’s not letting that stand in her way. She’s definitely pulled through, and I helped her apply for college. That was a great moment to go from possibly not making it to applying for college.”

Monae's gratitude to be in this position is immense: “I would not have been able to do it without these teachers at Hoover and United Way,” she said with an excited laugh as she wore her cap and gown the day before graduation. “You helped me through a lot, and I am able to make it because of you.”

Gretchen tells all of her students who are so grateful for support: “There are people who donated because they believe in you and they believe you can get there. Just follow through and promise to pay it forward.”

Monae cannot forget the journey she’s been on, especially the day she wore her cap and gown home to her apartment to surprise her mom who had just arrived from Indiana to celebrate.

“I would break down and cry to see my grades dropping and these bills are coming in the mail. It is so much,” she says. “I used to cry that I couldn’t do it, but all of it was definitely worth it.”

She is helping others find the same motivation to achieve their goals, taking on the role of mentoring iJag’s interns at Principal. At a presentation to Principal interns, “I told them to not let where they grew up define who they are and define how people see them,” she says. “Choose the path you want to go down. It’s not too early to better yourself and there’s always room to better yourself. You can do whatever you want to, but you have to give 120 percent.”

* Graduation photos provided by Des Moines Public Schools