Danielle Warner-Cavasos gets the hang of a geometry equation helped by math teacher Aaron Karsies, left, and program coordinator Jennifer Thompson

Mom Is ‘Determined to Do It’

Service Agency, Rockford Adult Education, Help Mothers Complete High School

by Charles Honey  

When Danielle Warner-Cavasos gets an A on a test, she puts it right where her children will see it: on the fridge.
That's how much getting her high school diploma means to her, and she wants them to know it.

"They tell me that they're proud of me," the Sparta mother of six said. Then came the tears.

It's a typical show of emotion among students in Rockford Adult Education. Warner-Cavasos is one of 29 students enrolled this fall, striving to meet the same requirements as their younger counterparts at Rockford High School.

"It means so much to our students, because they've been through life," said Jennifer Thompson, a teacher and coordinator of the program. "It's quite an accomplishment."

For students like Danielle, the accomplishment holds implications for her employability and her children. She is one of three mothers who have enrolled in Rockford Adult Education via the Thrive Empowerment Program of North Kent Community Services. For them, finishing high school is a key component of setting goals, learning coping skills and earning a living wage.

"I think it will help tremendously," Warner-Cavasos said of the diploma she hopes to earn by January. "New doors will open – doors that I have never been to before."

She also wants to open doors for her children, who attend Cedar Springs Public Schools, by setting the right example. "I really want my high school diploma," she said firmly. "I want to show my kids that if I can do it at 30 years old, they can do it."

Editor's Note: The Burden of Poverty: A Backpack of Heartache is a continuing series on poverty in the schools and how it affects students’ learning.

See Related Story: ‘That’s Why I’m Doing This’ : Adult Students Tell Legislators Improving Their Education Ultimately Helps Their Children

Finding Support in 'Family of Women'

Her determination has grown with the support of other women in Thrive, which serves mothers in northern Kent County. There she has taken classes in money management and stress reduction, connected with community resources and set herself a high bar. She calls it a "family of women" who helped her realize the goal of finishing school.

"Our children look up to us as mothers," said Warner-Cavasos, who is married to Leonardo Cavasos, a welder. "If we don't have our education, how are we going to show that to our kids?"

Rockford Adult Education awards a half-credit to students who complete Thrive. It is a powerful partnership that will help mothers improve their families' financial circumstances, said Cherie Elahl, program director for North Kent Community Services.

"The ultimate goal of Thrive is to combat generational poverty," Elahl said in an email. "When we empower mothers, we are breaking cycles and giving their children a chance for a brighter future."

Count Cindy DeYoung as one of those empowered mothers. Last May she became the first woman from Thrive to earn a diploma from Rockford Public Schools, after earning 18 credits in one academic year. Her Thrive classmates cheered as DeYoung received her diploma. She was inducted into the National Adult Education Honor Society and soon got a job with a temp agency.

"The transformation in her was amazing," Thompson said, adding there is rarely a dry eye at these graduations.
"It just means so much to people. Their whole lives they felt less because they didn't have this degree. It's not only the economic challenge, but it's an emotional rite of passage for them."

The Road to Empowerment

Thrive Empowerment Program serves mothers in northern Kent County who feel “stuck” and as though they are not reaching their full potential. Begun in 2014 by North Kent Community Services, it is a six-month program that helps women:

  • Learn how to create and stick to a budget

  • Set personal goals for the program and beyond

  • Learn to work with community agencies to find work, advance their education or start a business

  • Practice mindfulness techniques to reduce stress, anxiety and depression

For more information, contact program director Cherie Elahl at 616-866-3478 ext. 105, or cherie.elahl@nkcs.org

Stung by School Early

Warner-Cavasos knows what it's like to feel less. She struggled in school as a youth, both with dyslexia and her special education label. Other kids called her stupid. "It made me not want to go to school," she said.

Her parents' divorce didn't help, nor did the fact her mother worked second shift and couldn't help with her homework. Danielle dropped out at age 16, figuring she would fail anyway. What good was school to her?

The birth of her third child changed her mind. Struggling to support them as a then-single mother working "crappy" second-shift jobs, she said, "Reality smacked me really hard. I knew I had to finish my diploma to be able to help provide for our family, and to help my children with their schooling."

She began taking high school completion courses in Plainwell before having more children. A year ago she resumed her quest for a diploma, thanks to Thrive and Rockford. Initially quiet and reserved, she gained confidence as she went, proudly telling Elahl that she could now help her children with their homework.

This year she stepped up her schedule by taking English, economics, math and business technology. Her usual schedule: rise at 6 a.m., leave by 7 to drive kids to school, do homework, begin picking kids back up at 2:20, do more homework, fix dinner, come to class, fall asleep around midnight.

"Meeting all their needs on top of trying to meet mine is very difficult," she said of her children, ages 3 to 11. "But I am determined to do it."

Jennifer Thompson, right, says Danielle Warner-Cavasos takes a “scholarly” approach to her high-school completion studiesStudying Hard and Aiming High

Danielle applies herself doggedly, studying the textbooks and coming in early to get answers, Thompson said. "She's very scholarly. It's really important to her that she understands everything. What more could you want in a student?"

Warner-Cavasos hopes to enroll next year at Grand Rapids Community College and to gain nursing credentials to work in a hospital delivery unit. Eventually, she thinks she would like to be an obstetrician-gynecologist.

For now, she put the A-minus she earned in economics on the fridge. "When I get those A's, I feel really proud," she said with a smile.

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Submitted on: November 18th 2015

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