When Shanda McClendon discovered at 14 she was pregnant, she did something few in her predicament would think to do:
She called DCF.
McClendon was living with her mom, her uncle, two other siblings and a cousin in North Hartford. The alternative was turning to a grandmother, who was raising 12 kids in her house.
With the assistance of a school guidance counselor, McClendon asked DCF to take her away. She wanted to raise her child in a less turbulent home environment.
"I was young. I was scared. I knew my mom was in a situation where she would not be able to care for me and the baby," McClendon said this week, watching the boy, 10-year-old Raqwaun, practice football at Charter Oak School in West Hartford.
"I knew my family wouldn't be able to help me out — and I knew I would start showing soon at school and I didn't want the teachers and the kids to talk about it. … I wanted to get away from it."
She was sent to live in a foster home, then to St. Agnes Home in West Hartford, the state's oldest residential home for teenage moms and their babies.
After Raqwaun's birth, McClendon decided to go back to school. It was another decision that dramatically changed her life.
She earned a "B" average at Conard High School in West Hartford, where she moved when she was 16. Through financial aid and scholarships, McClendon attended St. Joseph College in West Hartford and earned a bachelor's degree in social work.
McClendon soon learned that clinicians earned more than case workers, but she needed a master's to make that happen. The University of Connecticut offered an accelerated master's degree program in social work — and was looking for applicants. McClendon earned a scholarship. Nine months later, she graduated with an advanced degree.
While going to college, she had two other children with a man she thought she'd marry. The couple, however, broke up days before her graduation from UConn in May of 2008.
Now 25, McClendon is a single mom with three children. But she has her master's degree, a new job as a counselor/therapist at a Hartford nonprofit that serves children in the juvenile justice system; and she just purchased a new car. Life is much better, but McClendon remembered something her professors told her.
"They said you're really good at this," McClendon recalls. "It would be really good if you went ahead and got your Ph.D. Do research in it. You have the life experience and people can use you not only in the field, but here at school — teaching about it. You bring more to the table than books."
The best social workers are the ones that can connect with their clients because they lived through the drama — and overcame it.
McClendon, who says her faith in God sustained her, is applying now to Argosy University in Washington, D.C., where she'll be able to earn her doctorate online in three years. The one-time schoolgirl who got herself into a big jam is thinking about becoming an executive director of a nonprofit — or teaching at a university. She is telling her story tonight at a fund-raiser for St. Agnes. It is one of faith, resilience and strong support.
"I didn't want to be in poverty anymore," she said. "I needed a better future for myself. And I needed a better future for my children."
She's just one example of a strong-willed mom who decided to break the cycle.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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