In the summer on 1991, just after learning I’d been accepted into the Elementary Education Program at Plymouth State College, I also learned that I was pregnant.

I had not followed the traditional path of going straight to college after graduating from high school, but had spent four years working a variety of jobs that included taking care of dogs and cleaning their pens at a kennel, doing everything from washing dishes to hostessing to waiting tables in a few local restaurants, caring for developmentally handicapped adults at a day-habilitation center, and clerking at a book and card store.

I was twenty-two years old. During spring break of my first year of college while my fellow students went on vacations to Florida, I went to the maternity ward where my son, Cameron, was born. Although this took me on a detour from my original plans, I’d never change a thing.

Fortunately, for me there were safety nets in place. Before I knew my son would be accompanying me during my college years, I had already applied for and been granted a financial aid package to cover my tuition and some of my living expenses. This, however, changed when it suddenly became difficult for me to keep my work-study job in addition to going to school full-time and raising a child as a single parent.

What I’m saying is that I became one of those people collecting welfare.

For my small family this meant that each month I received what was called AFDC or Aid to Families with Dependent Children, (this covered my rent and little else); WIC Coupons, which allowed me to buy milk, formula, and cheese for me while nursing and for Cameron afterwards; and food stamps.

Cameron and I lived in a small apartment that occupied the top floor of a converted two-story home. My landlady lived downstairs. I was lucky to find a place relatively close to campus and with inexpensive rent.

The AFDC was easy to keep secret. I got a check, deposited it into my checking account and then paid my bills with the money by writing my own checks. The WIC was no big deal. Lots of families are eligible to receive the program’s benefits while their children are young. The food stamps, however, were a different sort of dilemma.

I’d heard stories about people on welfare and food stamps – how they were taking advantage of the system, were scumbags, were lazy. I didn’t think of myself as any of these things. I was a young woman with goals, and I had a child to feed.

You cannot buy cigarettes, beer or condoms with food stamps. You can’t even buy shampoo or diapers. You can buy food. People food. Period.

Each week, when it was time to go grocery shopping, I did my best to fight the stereotypes against my family. I’d pick out nice outfits for Cameron and me. I’d make sure he was freshly bathed. I’d make sure he was comfortable, so he wouldn’t be fussy at Shop N Save and draw attention to us. The two of us.

But every week, after the clerk had scanned my groceries and it was time to pay him or her, I always got a knot in my stomach. They’re judging me, I imagined.

I had to keep my eyes on the prize. I did. Welfare benefits allowed me to stay in school. For my time in school and while student teaching, I lived sparingly on a combination of AFDC, student loans and grants, food stamps, and medicaid benefits. Other state money allowed me to send Cameron to the Early Childhood Development Center at PSC, where he received excellent care and lessons from some of the most talented early childhood educators in the state. At other times I relied on relatives and friends to babysit Cameron, so that I could write papers, study for exams and take night classes.

Somehow the two of us survived on little money and a lot of love.

I switched my major from Elementary to English Education during my second year of school. I worked in the media presentation lab. I also received a teaching fellowship assisting to teach a graduate level science class for teachers.

In five years, I graduated Summa Cum Laude, in the 10% top of my class, I was invited and joined two honor societies, I published poems, and  I made the President’s List every semester except the one in which I gave birth to Cameron. After graduation, I sent my resume out to every job posting for which I was qualified. I got a job as an English teacher at Hillsboro-Deering High School for the next school year.

And I tell few people that I was once on welfare. It’s embarrassing. It carries a stigma. But it is important to talk about it now when it is a safety net that is threatened. I want families who find themselves in need to have the same resources that I had.

For every story that is out there about people “bucking the system” remember there are hundreds more like mine. Stories about a young woman whose life took an unexpected detour and who needed a little extra help to find her way back to her right path.

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