Having survived Broad Street with its drive-by shootings, drug dealers and self-styled thugs, Ramonita Maldonado was looking forward to her high school graduation and starting college.
Then, last year, the Bulkeley High School senior honor student realized that she was late - and not for class. One week before graduation, she would give birth to her son, Ethan.
College would be put on hold. Dreams of being the first in her family to enter higher education were interrupted. But not for long.
Raised by her grandmother with eight other girls - sisters and cousins - in a four-bedroom apartment, Maldonado, now 19, knew all too well what happens to too many teen mothers. Many get on state assistance, work dead-end jobs and have enormous difficulties raising a child and making a life.
She decided to be different.
"I knew I still wanted to go to college. I knew that it was going to be hard, so I wanted to take a year off," Maldonado said over dinner at a Franklin Avenue restaurant. "But I promised that I was going to go back in that year no matter what situation I was in."
Through the YO Hartford! youth program, she learned about a two-month pharmacist-technician training program run by the Urban League of Greater Hartford. After an apprenticeship at Brooks Pharmacy on Franklin Avenue, Maldonado secured a full-time job there. Then, she applied to the University of Connecticut's pharmacy program late last year. After filling out the financial aid papers, Maldonado was informed that her entire tuition would be paid this year.
Now, the girl with the big dreams and the little baby is a full-time college student - "I have three A's and two B's" - and is on track to becoming a pharmacist in five years. She works part-time at the drug store and cares for Ethan along with her boyfriend, Anderson Oyola, 21, who is the baby's father, and her grandmother.
Yeah, Ramonita Maldonado heard what society says about unwed teenage mothers. She simply decided not to listen. Oyola sees what's happening to many young men who unexpectedly find out they're dads - they skedaddle.
"I just don't see how other people could do that," he said.
The couple live in an apartment on Congress Street. Oyola, who works as a forklift driver at J.C. Penney, says he will pursue a trade once Maldonado finishes school. They eventually plan to marry.
If they can make their family work, what an example they'll be to young Ethan, who will grow up in a household where excuses won't cut it.
"There's more to life than just following in the footsteps of all the misfortune in my family," Maldonado said. "I could have easily gone out there and sold drugs, or used drugs, or do nothing with my life. But ever since I was little, I knew I wanted something more in my life. ... I had a little setback. That doesn't mean I'm going to throw my life away. It just means I have another reason to be stronger."
Her mother, Maldonado said, was in and out of jail or on drugs. Same with her dad. There were plenty of bad influences in her childhood and few role models. Lynn Regali of New Britain, who works in the insurance industry, was one who took an interest. She met Maldonado years ago and became a mentor, taking the young girl to ballet classes, pizza shops, movies and even on vacation to Cape Cod.
"She inspired me," Maldonado said. "She showed me another side to life."
In recent months, Maldonado and Oyola welcomed another guest in their home - Von Marie, Maldonado's 18-year-old younger sister who had a baby this year and dropped out of high school.
Maldonado is helping her sister get back into school. "It's just a matter of going out there and trying to help yourself," she tells her sis.
The Urban League of Greater Hartford recognized Maldonado with its Youth Achievement Award a few weeks back at the Connecticut Convention Center.
"Her circumstances were severe," said Diane Augustine, director of occupational skills training at the League. "She really had a lot to overcome. But she has that special something inside of her that can turn lemon into lemonade."
Though just a freshman at UConn, Maldonado could teach us all a little something - about overcoming adversity.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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