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

When you live in poverty, a lot can get in the way of graduating

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

Let's face it, a lot of people take graduation for granted. It's just one of the many steps on the path to a career. But for some, it’s not that easy. I've been following one young mom for the last couple years as she tried – and failed – to complete a jobs training program. But as you're about to read, the young mom finally did it.

Many State of Opportunity listeners will recognize the young woman featured in this story. Her name is Keisha Johnson. She made her radio debut in November 2012, when she shared with listeners what her upbringing had been like. 

"I slept outside once in the alley," recalls Johnson. "My mom was in the house drunk, and we’re bamming on the door, my brothers and sisters and I ... we couldn’t get in, so I slept outside on a mattress in the alley." When I asked Johnson if she was scared, she simply replied "I mean I had to do what I had to do." Johnson says she slept on the porch a couple times as well because her mom "would be in the house drunk and high and we couldn’t get in."

Johnson grew up poor and is still poor to this day. But she wants to climb out poverty so that her three young children (more on them in a minute) can have a better life.

I met Johnson when she was 24 years old, and ever since then she's been telling me about how much she wants to get a job and get off state aid. Her goal was to enroll in the information technology program at Focus Hope, a non-profit in Detroit with a good track record of finding permanent jobs for folks who complete their training programs.

It's been a long road, but Keisha Johnson finally managed to graduate from the first 15-week series of computer tech classes at Focus Hope. (She has two more series of classes to take before she's totally finished with the program.)

Keisha Johnson doesn't have a lot of family members she can count on. Her mom is an alcoholic, her dad's in prison, and her now ex-boyfriend is also in prison.

So why did it take more than two years for her to complete a 15-week program? Well, like a lot of folks who live in poverty, something always seemed to get in Johnson's way.

Her car broke down. At one point her cash assistance was cut off, which really stressed her out. Her two boys, Kaleb and Alan Jr., have respiratory problems; she shuttled them back and forth to the hospital so often that she missed too many classes and was kicked out of the training program her first time through.

And then there’s her family: Her mom’s an alcoholic, her dad’s in prison, her now ex-boyfriend is in prison. The only reliable family member she has to help her out is her grandma, Ella Halley. 

"Keisha has that thing about her that doesn't give up," says Halley. "It's always been there, even when she was a little girl. So I knew this day would come for her."

Halley says her granddaughter is determined to provide a better life for her babies, and she's "an example for other young woman."

Keisha Johnson has had some non-family members help her out along the way, though. She's had a steady boyfriend for the past year and a half. He has a steady job as a security guard and helps take care of the children when Johnson is in school. An Ann Arbor woman named Judy has been acting as a kind of mentor to Keisha Johnson ever since Judy heard her story on Michigan Radio back in 2012. (Judy asked that we not use her last name because she prefers her assistance remain anonymous.)

Judy made it the graduation ceremony at Focus Hope last week. And there was Keisha Johnson, looking pretty darn proud of herself, with her black cap and gown on and the most satisfied grin on her face. She was also sporting a pretty big baby bump. 

For a number of reasons Judy and Johnson haven’t been able to see each other for the last several months, so it comes as a total shock to Judy when she sees that Johnson is very pregnant with baby number four.

Judy wants to know if Johnson will be able to continue her education with this new little baby to look after. "I did it this time," says Johnson, "I can keep doing it. I'm gonna do it." 

We'll continue to follow Keisha Johnson to see if she does stick with the program, and to see what lies ahead for her and her three, soon to be four, children.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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