STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

How do you get a kid out of a bad situation? Start with one person who cares.

courtesy Jamie Alexander

Stories on State of Opportunity are all about ways to help disadvantaged kids find success in life. But when you meet a successful adult who grew up disadvantaged, they have a story that is like many others.

They didn’t get where they are by accident. They worked hard, of course, but usually, they also had some help.  And often, that help can be traced back to one person who decided to make a difference.

Today, we're starting an occasional series about the people who make that decision. We’re calling this series, "One Person Who Cared."  To share your own "One Person Who Cared" story, click here

I met Jamie Alexander a couple of years ago. She’s a social worker for a program in Grand Rapids called Strong Beginnings, which helps African-American moms have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.

But on the car ride to one of her client’s homes, Alexander told me her own story.

"My mom was a drug addict, an alcoholic," Alexander said. "And my dad was not around."

Alexander was one of three kids. And what made her story stick with me is that despite her family’s struggles, all three kids are now successful adults, two of them with college degrees.

"I see people today ... people that knew us when we were younger and they’re like, 'I’m surprised that you guys are the way you are,'" Alexander says. "We, I guess, beat the odds."

But beating the odds doesn’t just happen. Someone has to make it happen.

For Alexander, and her brother and sister, there were two people: Grandpa and Grandma.

"My daughter was kind of wild at that time," says Bobbie Lee, Alexander's grandmother. "And, naturally, I was a grandmother, I just took 'em on in."

Lee says she wanted to let the kids know they were loved. But Alexander says there were also high expectations once they moved into Grandpa and Grandma’s house.

"Not going to school was not an option," Alexander says. "I don’t care how sick you were, I don’t care how bad you felt, you were going to school in this house. And you were going to bring home As and Bs. I remember getting in trouble the first time I got a C. So it wasn’t like you’re going to school to have fun. We had to go to school, do what we were supposed to do."

And Grandma wasn’t the only one involved. Alexander’s grandpa, who died in 2010, would drive the kids wherever they needed to go. He’d get Alexander up in the morning when she didn’t want to wake up for school.

"He would be banging at the door, telling me to get up," Alexander says. "So he was kind of like the warden around here."

"Yeah, that’s what they called him," Lee chimes in. "Even their friends, too, called him the warden."

But even the warden was there with love and support when Alexander needed it.

Now Alexander’s mom is sober, and has been sober for years. But Alexander knows how lucky she was to have her grandparents step in when they did. She’s a social worker now. She sees a lot of families – a lot of kids – struggling.

I ask Alexander if she sees kids getting the kind of support she received when things go wrong at home.

"I think I see more kids who don’t get it," she tells me. "I have clients who, they’ve been put out by family members and they were homeless. My family is not like that, even my extended family. If any one of us was to ever need something, we would be able to get it. So I do see a lot of people who just really don’t have the support that they need."

Getting people the support they need is now Jamie Alexander’s job.

We’re gathering more stories for the "One Person Who Cared" series. To share your story, click here.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.