Michelle Milline figured it out, she says. The only way is education. She was a high school dropout at 15, and it was too late for her maybe, but not too late for her five kids.
To make sure they got to school, she took them every day, walking several Over-the-Rhine blocks from home to Rothenberg School. She often collected other kids along the way, some she knew well enough to badger about homework.
Then she hung around - for six years. She was an aide, doing whatever she was asked. When the school day was done, she took the kids and went home. "I want you to do better than me," she told her children. "Study. Life will be easier for you."
They were not buying it.
If school was such a big thing, then why didn't their mother have to finish? Or sassy adolescent words to that effect.
So she did.
Last year, Michelle and her oldest daughter, Jackie, finished high school at the same time. "If I can do it at my age," she told her children, "it should be a breeze for you, you being so smart and all." Or sassy parental words to that effect.
She works now at the Urban Appalachian Council's Identity Center on Walnut Street, between Liberty and 14th, a mean little stretch of city landscape. The brick building is painted purple - yes, purple - and easily stands out from its neighbors. Across the street is a firmly boarded-up rat motel. On either side, graffiti. But none on the walls of this narrow two-story building.
This is where Michelle earned her GED. This is where, she says, she finally could see something for herself. After nearly 20 years of public assistance, trying vaguely to "be a positive person" and "living from month to month," she says she is less than two years away from independence.
In her second semester at Chatfield College, she wants to teach. Math, she thinks. She earns tuition as an AmeriCorps tutor in the same classroom where she began her trip out of welfare. She's 35 and had lost some of the knack of studying, although she had been a "pretty good student" at Washburn Elementary and later Taft High School.
She carefully does not dramatize what surely has been a struggle to be respectable. "I have never sat at home, waiting for a check to come to me." She has worked, cleaning offices, serving food. And she understands "the system" and has wrung whatever she could from it.
Seeing something special
A few years ago, she could not find a decent place to live. Money wasn't the biggest problem.
"Nobody wanted to rent to somebody with five children."
So, she went to the mayor, then David Mann. She told him she was a law-abiding citizen. So far. "I do not have a record," she said to the mayor, "but I will do anything to take care of my babies." He found housing for her, and "was very nice" in the bargain.
Maybe he saw something special there.
Larry Redden does. "She is my hero," he says. And she is not the only one. "I see a lot of people here who have everything going against them. And they get out. Out of poverty."
He's the site coordinator for the Identity Center, and he knows about getting out. At 12, "I was homeless with a hundred homes," he says, scrounging shelter and food in the neighborhood where he now works. "My dream was to have my own house in Price Hill." He has the house in Price Hill, "a beautiful wife who grew up on Main Street" and five kids and six grandchildren. He was saved, he says, by programs like this.
Anyway, it took a long time and a lot of money to get Michelle Milline to this point. Food stamps. Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Now AmeriCorps and this council, which gets its money from United Way and the city and the county.
Is this quiet woman with her low voice and sloe eyes and her tenuous grasp on a future worth the investment? She will, of course, be a taxpayer once she gets on her feet. And she has been a living lesson for her kids.
So let's measure her success then multiply by five.
Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio, and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.