Single mom overcomes battery of obstacles on her way to a degree
As Monica bathed her one-year-old son out of a pot, she knew she had to make a change. It was the winter of 2020 and her apartment’s heat had stopped working. Despite her pleading, her landlord refused to fix it. That forced her, her boyfriend and her son to live in one room, huddled around space heaters.
To hear her describe it, it was a literal house of horrors. She actually calls it a haunted house.
Soon after she had moved in the year before, vandals started breaking into her cars. That summer, without air conditioning, the heat in the apartment stifled any movement. And the refrigerator kept breaking down, sending the smell of spoiled food through the apartment.
Her landlord refused to do anything about it.
“He was a disgusting individual,” she says.
When the radiator broke that winter, throwing plumes of steam into the air, flooding the floor and nearly scalding her son, Monica reached her breaking point.
This wasn’t her first experience with less-than-ideal living conditions.
“There were times awhen my sister and I lived without water, gas, lights and even food,” she says.
And she wasn’t unfamiliar with adversity. Growing up, the ceiling for accomplishment in her neighborhood was a high school diploma followed by low-wage jobs.
Monica had broken the cycle though.
It took some time, but after stints at the Ohio Media School, Cuyahoga Community College and a series of dead-end jobs, the birth of her son motivated her to make a better life for herself. She went on government assistance and enrolled at Cleveland State.
But just months after starting, she found herself scrambling to keep her son warm in freezing temperatures with a slum lord who dismissed her concerns.
She still kicks herself for moving into the apartment.
“That was the worst decision that I ever made in my life.”
Then her father died, blindsiding everyone, and shattering Monica’s world.
In the span of just one day, he had been diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer that had gone undetected. He died only hours later. Doctors said that a healthy person would have succumbed to the disease within a week. Her dad’s slew of pre-existing conditions didn’t give him a chance.
“It was the worst day of my life,” she says.
Reeling from the trauma of the loss, she didn’t have the strength to fight her landlord. And the thought of forcing her child to suffer through living without heat became too much to bear. “The day after he died, we got up that morning and I said, ‘we can’t stay here anymore’.” She moved in with her mother that day.
In the aftermath of his passing, she discovered that her father didn’t have life insurance, so she and her sister were left footing the bill for his final arrangements.
Her savings — the money she had planned on paying for college — was gone.
Monica somehow mustered the strength to finish the semester but was sure she’d have to drop out. Her dad’s voice echoed in her heart though.
“You are about to have your bachelor’s degree,” he would say.
“After that, you can write your ticket.”
It was the motivation she needed to finish what she started.
A financial aid representative urged her to apply for scholarships. Despite her challenges, Monica had earned good grades and was a member of two honors societies.
Halfway through the semester, she learned that she’d been awarded two scholarships. A month later, she received another scholarship, a part of which she was able to use to move into a place of her own in a safe neighborhood.
“I was even able to give my son a great Christmas,” she says.
Monica graduated in the spring and was able to share her gratitude for donor support to this year’s crowd at Radiance.
“Your support lifted me out of one of the darkest moments of my life,” she said.
“You helped me believe again. You helped me dream again.”
This fall, she plans on attending graduate school at CSU.
At the end of her speech at Radiance, she seemed to have resolved the trauma, grief and struggle of her past.
“After having enduring what I have and because of the people who have supported me along the way, there’s nothing that can stop me.”