Stacy McCarter thought education would help her escape.
Escape the generational poverty she grew up in in St. Louis’ West End. Escape the violence that landed her and her children in a domestic violence shelter when she was married.
“I’ve always tried to find a way to get away from it all,” says McCarter. “I ran headfirst into school.”
In May, McCarter graduated from Misericordia University in Dallas, Penn with a degree in early childhood education. It is a private university founded by the Sisters of Mercy. She is the first person in her family to have a college degree. Her road to graduation, a job, and hope for her family was filled with bumps.
As a child, McCarter attended Parkway schools as part of the area’s voluntary transfer program. She dropped out of Parkway North High School before graduating. She eventually joined a job corps program and received her diploma. She tried St. Louis Community College, but it didn’t work out.
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Obstacles kept getting in the way.
“Life happened,” says McCarter. She thought she figured it all out when she enrolled at Harris-Stowe State University and got a job at the school’s daycare center so she could be close to her kids. But the bills, including tuition and daycare fees, proved to be too high again.
“It was very difficult for me,” she recalls. “I kept wanting more but just couldn’t figure it out.”
Then the pastor of their congregation, the Maplewood United Methodist Church, walked in. Pastor Kim Shirar had heard of a program in Pennsylvania called the Ruth Matthews Bourger Women With Children Program. It is a unique residential center at Miseracordia University that helps single mothers earn a college degree.
McCarter did not want to leave St. Louis. It was a place she had never heard of, in a rural area in a far away state. But she prayed. She looked for signs. She took the plunge.
“We had nowhere else to go.”
Students pay tuition at the school but may qualify for financial aid. The program pays for housing and utilities, childcare, food stipends, and even after-school activities for the children.
McCarter describes each of her children in terms of their unique gifts.
Sophia, 11, is the author.
Allen, 8, is the genius. “We call him preacher, lawyer, doctor.”
Elijah, 6, is the athlete.
They are her pride, and now, she says, they have a future because she has a college degree. This is how the women-with-children program sees itself, says its director, Katherine Pohlidal. It’s not just about saving one generation, but two.
“It’s a sustainable way to lift families out of poverty for two generations at the same time,” says Pohlidal. The grant-supported program is expanding, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, cited it in his recent annual address to the Legislature, suggesting that the state’s public universities should consider adding such programs. The program at Misericordia is one of eight similar programs in the country, but the only one that fully covers housing costs. Every graduate of the program, says Pohlidal, embarks on a career. Some of the program’s first graduates since its inception in 2000 now have children graduating from college.
McCarter was hired as a special education teacher in the Wilkes-Barre public schools. She misses St. Louis and is considering coming back, but for now she is on the path she believes God intended for her.
“We single mothers are important. Our education increases our skills and knowledge,” she says. “I think of all the women whose daycare costs are out of control and who can’t afford to go to school. I just want them to have a chance. I pray Missouri wakes up and finds a way to start pilot programs like this.”