Life’s obstacles don’t stop tenacious teen from shooting for top

01/28/2014 5:06 PM

01/28/2014 10:33 PM

Students who went to William Chrisman High School may remember recent graduate Teri Martin. She was the kid with the planner crammed with sticky notes — always on the go between classes, theater productions and her jobs. The cheerful kid who always did her homework on time and rarely complained. A friendly kid. Unusually self-disciplined. What few of them would have known was how she got to be that way. They wouldn’t have known, for instance, about the times she was the sole breadwinner for a family of 10 living in a house with no running water. The times she had to choose between water and electricity because there wasn’t enough money for both. The three buses she took to school. They wouldn’t have known — because she didn’t tell a lot of people — that Martin was homeless, living with a friend and not getting financial support from her parents. It would have been easy to write her off, knowing that. Homelessness has a drastically negative effect on kids. The insecurity of living on the edge can play havoc with a student’s chances for good grades and success later in life, experts say. The constant moving, lack of access to supplies and study time can make it so difficult that some students drop out. But Teri Martin, now 18, was having none of that. Last spring, her family and friends celebrated her graduation and full-ride scholarship to Avila University. She ended her first semester there with straight A’s taking 18 credit hours toward a double major in business, marketing and management as well as administration. She has a fiance and hopes to own her own coffee shop one day. With the help of a kind Independence family who took her in, supportive teachers and a nonprofit agency called the Family Conservancy, Martin is making it. Hers is a success story that would have done Charles Dickens proud.
Martin was always a good student. But she doesn’t remember much about the elementary schools she might have attended in Arkansas during her early years. What she does remember is moving. Lots and lots of moving. Martin, her mom, stepdad, two brothers and a sister lived in a mobile home park in Bella Vista, Ark., the earliest she remembers. Her mom had a job at a Sonic Drive-In, and her stepdad did commercial and residential painting. She says she hasn’t seen her biological father for years. Things started to unravel when her stepdad lost his painting job after falling off a ladder and injuring his back, she said. Thus began a series of moves — to various locations in Independence, to Columbia, and back. For a while, the family lived in tents at a private campground near Smithville Lake, she said. “It was fun, but at the same time, you see your friends and they’re living in a house. You get tired of living in a tent.” The family moved through two or three houses in Independence alone. Eventually, the moving became a blur for Martin, it was so frequent. For a while during her freshman year, she lived with a friend’s family rather than change schools so many times. Martin got her first job shortly after she turned 15. It was as a clerk at a Hot Topic store while the family was living in Columbia. They’d gone to stay with Martin’s uncle, who lived in houses he fixed up for resale. “Most of the houses we lived in we probably shouldn’t have lived in,” she said. Case in point: The house in Columbia had no running water except in the kitchen; it had three space heaters but no central heat. Martin’s family plus her uncle’s family brought the number of people living there to 10, plus five dogs and three cats. There was only one car, so Martin did a lot of walking to school and work. Martin remembers her mom losing several jobs during that period and her stepdad being unable to find painting work. It fell to Martin to support the extended family. “I didn’t make enough to pay every bill,” she said. “So I had to choose: Do I want water this week, do I want electricity? During the winter I chose electricity because we just would melt the snow on the stove.” Martin’s mother, Brenda Fuller, said the house was the one where her own father was born and grew up. It had a pellet stove in the center, but no one knew how to work it, so the family used space heaters. “It was kind of my way of having my dad with me,” said Fuller, who acknowledged that finances were tight. “It was a struggle as a single mom with four kids working all the time to put a roof over their heads and food in their bellies.”
Finally, in her junior year, Martin found some stability at the home of her friend, Rachel McIntyre. Rachel’s mother, Jodie McIntyre, remembers Martin from as far back as eighth grade, when she and Rachel daydreamed about becoming exchange students in Japan. Once, she came for a slumber party, but when it was time to take the kids home, McIntyre said, “There was no place to really take Teri.” Often, the house was empty. “She’d say, ‘Just leave me outside,’ and we’d say no,” McIntyre said. “We couldn’t do that.” So Martin asked her mom if she could move in with the McIntyres. And she got the go-ahead. She stayed there awhile in ninth grade, moved again with her family to Columbia and then came back again at the beginning of her junior year. Lloyd McIntyre was a little leery of taking in another person. He made a decent living as a truck driver, and Jodie stayed home to care for their autistic son. However, the family had an unhappy previous experience helping out family members with a place to stay, he said. But Lloyd remembered growing up in a family with nine kids. “I knew what it was to be poor and disadvantaged. I could relate to her that way,” he said. McIntyre didn’t want a “problem child,” he said, but once he got to know Martin, “you couldn’t help but like her.” “She never, ever took advantage and was always thankful for what we were doing for her,” he said. “Teri came to us as a good child. Her mother must have done something right.” Martin agrees, saying her mom inspired her to work hard, despite the family’s unstable financial condition. “She always encouraged me to go to school and follow my dreams,” she said. For Martin, having a stable family to live with made all the difference. In earlier school years, she said, she kept pretty much to herself lest she advertise the financial straits she was in. “I was very protective of my mom,” she said. “I just didn’t want to get them in trouble.” “My junior year was the first year I was really involved with school because I knew I wasn’t going to be moving.” She joined the drama department, designing sets and once playing the part of Miss Hathaway in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” “I was comfortable because I knew I would have someplace to go, I would be eating and would have a warm bed at night,” she said. “Turns out I’m a really friendly person and people like me.” Teachers agree. Kim Hayes, theater director at William Chrisman High, said Martin never brought up her family situation. Her drive has been the key to her success. “Anybody else in her situation would have dropped out,” she said. Nedra Jeffress, Martin’s biology teacher, said Martin never complained or made excuses. “She never let things slow her down.” There were still a few hiccups. Getting medical records or permission slips signed was a chore, because she still had to track down her mother. But generally, things began to look up. She still worked to help pay her way. She’s held jobs at a Hi Boy Drive In, as a barista at a couple of coffeehouses and as a “screamster” in costume during Halloween season at Worlds of Fun, where she met her husband-to-be, Phillip Watkins. Yet her grades didn’t suffer, said Jodie McIntyre. “She had the best time-management skills I’ve ever seen.” That was good, because her paycheck was still needed. Although the McIntyres had steady work, they were not wealthy enough for splurges. Martin took up residence in Jodie McIntyre’s home office, and she and Rachel shared some clothes, Jodie McIntyre said.
And there was other help. The Family Conservancy, a Kansas City area nonprofit agency that offers counseling and resources for parents, has a Student Assistance Program for students like Martin. The group gets referrals from school officials who suspect a student is living on his or her own, said counselor Jason Swartwood. The program then sets them up with a counselor who can help them navigate things like budgets, medical assistance and planning for college. Jeffress, the biology teacher, said she’s seen a steadily increasing number of homeless students in her 29 years at Chrisman, with probably 10 students this year. “As a teacher, I don’t always know all the details,” she said. But when a student enrolls at school without a parent’s signature, the school becomes aware and tries to help with supplies and textbooks. A lot of those kids flock to the theater department, Hayes said, because unlike a one-season sport, it provides a home throughout the academic year for kids with all kinds of talents. In Martin’s case, the Family Conservancy helped with a small stipend for car insurance and with applying for college and student aid. Swartwood also helped her decide whether to join the Navy or enroll in college after graduation. At college, Martin is no less busy. She still works multiple jobs and studies hard. She’s planning a Star Wars-themed wedding after graduation with fiance Watkins, an Independence mail carrier. “She makes me want to work harder just to keep up with her,” said Watkins, 21. Fuller is understandably proud of her daughter. She’s not only the first one in her family to attend college but also the first one to graduate high school. “She’s always been a go-getter, even since she was a baby,” said Fuller, who has remarried and now lives with Teri’s brothers and sister in Cameron, Mo. “If she had it in her sight, she always went out and got it,” she said. “I never had to push her.” Martin says she and her mother are on good terms, and she makes regular visits to Cameron. When she goes into town, Martin says, her mother frequently stops to introduce her to friends. “They say, ‘Are you the one in college?’ ” Martin said. “No one’s ever gone to college in my family.” And little by little, she may be changing that family. Last Christmas, according to Martin, her sister said she wants to follow in her collegiate footsteps. Both want their brothers to think about getting GEDs. Not every once-homeless teen does as well. “It really depends on if you have the drive and ambition and want to do it,” Martin said. “I want my kids to have a better future. I don’t want my kids to live in a campground or pay my bills.”

Youth homelessness: Part two

This is the second installment in 816 focusing on homelessness among teens and young adults. Last week’s story introduced the topic in general.

Nationally, homelessness among students is on the rise, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

New statistics from that agency show 1.1 million kids from kindergarten through 12th grade were homeless in the 2011-12 school year. That year in Missouri, 24,549 homeless students were enrolled, a 23 percent increase over the prior year, the study said. About 2,000 lived in the Kansas City area.

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