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by Vanessa Glavinskas Photography by Ramon Palacios-Pelletier
Stephanie Wallace was 13 years old when she gave birth to her first child. By age 19, she had five children and was raising them in Cabrini-Green, a notoriously violent Chicago public housing project, the same place where she had grown up.
“There was a lot of gun activity in Cabrini, and the apartment under ours was vacant,” Wallace recalls. “People would go in there and shoot out of the window.” One day, when two of her sons were four and five years old, she overheard them playing a game where they listened for a gunshot and tried to guess the kind of weapon that fired it. When one of her boys ran up to tell her, ‘You heard that, Mom? That’s a .45!’ she realized she needed to get her kids out of the projects.
But her family was against the idea. “My mom, my aunts, my whole family lived there. We helped each other,” Wallace says. If she moved to the suburbs, she would be on her own.
But Wallace was determined. She found a subsidized town house in Arlington Heights, a quiet suburb northwest of the city, and started working the night shift at a Kinko’s copy shop. She walked over an hour each way; she didn’t have a car, and there was no bus. It took her almost a year to save $900 for a used car. Once she did, she found a job in health care with better hours and eventually became a certified nursing assistant.
Today, Wallace’s children are adults. “They’re all prospering,” she says proudly. Her elder daughter, who was the first in the family to graduate from college, is pursuing a doctoral degree. One son became a nurse, another a welder, and the youngest joined the military. Her younger daughter is raising children of her own.
But with her children grown, Wallace felt adrift. “All I’d done was care for people since I was 13 years old,” she says. A doctor prescribed medication for depression and recommended she think about what she wanted to do next, now that she had time for herself. Wallace had earned a GED certificate and an associate degree in arts, but was never sure what direction she wanted to go. Now she thought of becoming a registered nurse — but discovered that the classes she had taken had eaten up all of the financial aid she was eligible to receive.
From surviving to thriving
Lauren Chilvers, a member of the Rotary Club of Schaumburg-Hoffman Estates, Illinois, says Wallace’s story reflects a hard reality facing many adult students: If they manage to find the time to attend classes, they often can’t afford it. Chilvers manages scholarship programs for Harper College, a community college that serves 35,000 students in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. She met Wallace through Harper’s Rita and John Canning Women’s Program, which helps women — often single mothers or victims of abuse — pursue their goals. After reading Wallace’s application, Chilvers thought she would be a good fit for a scholarship, funded by a Rotary Foundation global grant, that her Rotary club had started in partnership with Harper College. The program is called ACE, which stands for Advancing Community Economics. Since the program began in 2018, 21 adult students have received scholarships covering all their tuition and books through the $80,000 ACE grant.
Stephanie Wallace says that the ACE scholarship still feels too good to be true.
“The ACE scholarship is for adults who have a low-income job and want to do better and build a career,” says Jean Schlinkmann, also a member of the Schaumburg-Hoffman Estates club. “We focus on the working poor and underemployed.”
Wallace applied, and a few weeks later she was sitting in front of a dozen people, some from the Rotary club and others from Harper, explaining why she thought nursing would be a good fit for her. A few days later, she learned that she had been accepted and that her tuition at Harper would be paid in full. “I’ve aced my classes, because I wasn’t worried about how I was going to pay for each class,” Wallace says. “Just having the funding alleviates so much stress. Nursing is a demanding program, and it’s hard to focus when you’re worried you’ll be dropped because of nonpayment.”
Reprinted from the Rotary International Website.