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Against All Odds

December 19, 2011
NIU alumna Yolanda (right) enjoys a MELD banquet with her husband, Usvaldo, and her oldest daughter, Alejandra. Photo courtesy Rockford MELD.

NIU alumna Yolanda (right) enjoys a MELD banquet with her husband, Usvaldo, and her oldest daughter, Alejandra. Photo courtesy Rockford MELD.

As a 16-year-old with five siblings and an abusive mother, Yolanda struggled to gain attention from her single parent.

She finally succeeded – and in a big way, or so she thought – when administrators at Rockford East High School expelled her for fighting.

But though it might have earned her some street cred with the other bad kids, getting the school’s boot didn’t get her very far. Yolanda’s mom kicked her out, too. She was homeless, living on the streets. The year was 1992.

Yolanda wound up at the St. Elizabeth Catholic Community Center in Rockford, where the caring director rescued her from the downward spiral.

“He bought me a bus ticket to St. Paul, Minnesota,” she says.

The angel-on-earth instructed Yolanda to report to Job Corps, a “place for kids who’ve exhausted all other options,” a place that would put a roof over her head, give her a bed to sleep in and even provide her a stipend to purchase soap, toothpaste and other little essentials.

While there, Job Corps also enrolled her in business courses and helped her to earn a GED.

“Job Corps was a new beginning and a different set of rules,” she says. “I flourished.”

Agency staff weren’t equipped to fix all of her behavior, however, and Yolanda became pregnant. When she was six months along, Job Corps purchased her a plane ticket home.

In Rockford, she found a mother still uninterested in living with her, citing a concern for Yolanda’s younger, impressionable sisters.

Her mother drove her straight from the airport to Rockford MELD – Mothers and Dads Establishing Life’s Direction – and left her in the care of former agency director Fran Middleton.

MELD’s mission is “guiding young parents to build a strong family and lead a responsible life by providing shelter, education and life skills training.”

“When I first arrived, I was scared,” Yolanda writes in a testimonial on the MELD website. “To my delight, I was welcomed with loving arms. The staff helped me into my apartment-like dwelling and explained the rules to me. I had chores to do in the MELD facility, such as cooking and cleaning, and I had to keep my ‘apartment’ clean.”

With MELD’s assistance, Yolanda got “a second chance with three square meals a day” and snagged a job at First Federal Savings Bank, working for the vice president.

Although he dubbed the young mother-to-be “a little rough around the edges,” the start was a good one.

“Now that I’m older and educated,” she says, “I know what an opportunity that was.”

Two decades and five children later, Yolanda is a successful NIU graduate with a bachelor’s degree in accountancy. She crossed the stage last December, braving a brutal snowstorm to drive down from Rockford to DeKalb for the commencement ceremony.

She’s currently preparing to sit for the CPA exam, which she expects to accomplish by June with some assistance from NIU’s CPA Review.

And she’s inspiring Rockford-area teenagers who find themselves in the same straits of impending motherhood, not only in person when she volunteers at MELD but in the media.

Larry Morrissey

Larry Morrissey

During a recent event in Rockford to celebrate the victories and delineate the continuing challenges of Mayor Larry Morrissey’s Task Force on Homelessness, the mayor recounted Yolanda’s story to the gathered civic leaders and journalists. Mayor Morrissey had heard her speak at one of the many MELD fundraisers where she tells her tale.

There’s no wondering why: Yolanda is clearly, and deservedly, proud of herself and her tenacity and perseverance.

“When I look back on where I came from – the abuse, the homelessness, knocking on MELD’s door, 16 and pregnant – and when I look at where I am now,” she says, content to leave the sentence incomplete.

“I’m a better person. I’m educated,” she adds. “I volunteer a lot at MELD, and I talk to 16-year-old me’s, and I see the attitude. I tell them, ‘Look at where I’m at. I was in your shoes. You can be here, too.’ It’s like I told the mayor: Education is the key.”

Yolanda’s higher education came with its own obstacles.

She originally enrolled at Rock Valley College in 1996 to study computer programming and design but dropped out after only a year. It just wasn’t the right major.

That decision canceled her Pell grant but gave her time to improve her anger management. “MELD helped me to get counseling for my low self-esteem,” she says. “I told them, ‘I don’t want to get angry with my kids.’ ”

She eventually came back to RVC as an employee – “God had a plan,” she says – and took classes for free. Unfortunately, her job was downsized in 2002. She would return again, this time on her own terms – and for good.

As she earned her associate’s degree with high honors in the spring of 2008, she weighed the costs and benefits of NIU against Rockford College. NIU’s lower tuition and high pass rate on the CPA exam won her over despite the long commutes and the price of gas.

She came to DeKalb that fall and immediately put her nose to the grindstone, balancing full loads of classes along with a part-time job as a bookkeeper as well as her five children and their homework. Her husband, Usvaldo, provided the necessary moral support and household help.

To her delight, NIU’s professors taught her things she could apply immediately to her part-time work while also understanding the logic behind those things.

Yolanda was excited to learn more about finance and entrepreneurship. She was fascinated by Pam Smith’s course in mergers and acquisitions, where she learned how to comprehend and interpret the “mind-boggling” balance sheets of Fortune 500 companies.

Sandy Devona and Lynn Neeley

Sandy Devona and Lynn Neeley

“She’s a very, very good student. I was really amazed when I realized that not only was she going to school full time but that she was working part time and had five kids at home,” says Sandy Devona, an instructor in the NIU Department of Accountancy.

“She makes a great accountant with her attention to detail, her focus and her work ethic. She just has a tremendous work ethic,” Devona adds. “And she understands more than just the numbers. In my class, we talk a lot about internal controls that need to be in place to keep people from stealing or committing fraud. Because she has work experience, she was able to relate to that quite well.”

To Yolanda’s dismay, however, the straight-A report cards she earned at Rock Valley were in the past.

“The accountancy program is so rigorous. It was really hard … and I had a two-hour round-trip commute. I recorded a lot of my teachers’ lectures, and I listened to them again on my drive home,” she says.

“And the amount of homework? I really beat myself up that I did not get straight A’s. But I was a good example to my children. Seeing me go and work hard shows them that working hard pays off. I tell my kids, ‘Wow! You’re so smart! I’m so proud you got that answer without my help!’ And I’d like to think they’re proud of me.”

Her children – Alejandra, 18; Thalia, 15; Gabriella, 13; Osvaldo, 10; and Nayeli, 8 – already are benefitting.

Teachers praise their academic performance and classroom behavior; just as good, her new full-time job as an accountant at a Rockford-area manufacturer allows her to take vacation days to spend with her children and take them to the movies when schools are closed for legal holidays.

“I tell my children, ‘You will graduate from high school. You will go to college. You will not work fast-food. I don’t want to see C’s. I want A’s and B’s. You’re my child. You should have my brain!’ ”

And Yolanda is not done.

She intends to earn a master’s degree, and hopes someday to open her own tax accountancy business. She already has 68 clients for whom she prepares freelance tax returns.

In January, she will take a seat on the MELD Board of Directors.

“I hope my story encourages someone along the way,” Yolanda says, “maybe a single mom trying to get her degree at NIU!”

College of Business management professor Lynn Neeley, who nominated Yolanda for an Outstanding Woman Student Award in 2010, has no doubt that her former pupil can accomplish anything she wants.

“Yolanda was a highly motivated student who was really sharp and would follow through on her work at 120 percent. An additional enjoyable thing is her great sense of humor, which makes it wonderful working with anybody, and I enjoyed her thoroughly,” Neeley says.

“She has tremendous determination, and one of the few things that’s common among successful entrepreneurs is to always get back up off the mat. It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down. It’s how many times you get back up, and she’s got that nailed. You can’t beat that with a stick.”