AP NEWS

Single mother graduates from Piedmont Tech _ with 2 degrees

September 24, 2018

GREENWOOD, S.C. (AP) — Heaven Lee didn’t like talking when she first came to Greenwood.

“I felt as though what I had to say didn’t matter,” Lee said. She even had a jacket that she could pull up to cover her mouth. Nevertheless, she spoke at her graduation from Piedmont Technical College this summer and shared some very personal information.

“I was born into this world not breathing and with cocaine in my system,” she began.

“The weight that she’s carried has been tremendous,” Sam Hart, pastor at First Assembly, said. “The obstacles she’s been going through, she’s turned them into opportunities.”

Lee grew up in Newark, New Jersey. “People here are saying that crime is getting bad,” Lee said, amused. Some of the people she grew up with have been murdered. Some are in jail for murder.

Despite the harshness of her environment, her adoptive father had her back, and she did well in school. Her motivation crumbled, however, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and forgot who she was. He died in 2011, two years after he was diagnosed.

Although Lee finished high school and enrolled in community college, she dropped out after two semesters. Her adoptive mother had never been particularly supportive, the water wasn’t running, and there were “at least” 10 cats in the house. When an older brother, who was living with a girlfriend in Anderson, South Carolina, invited her to live with him instead, she didn’t think twice.

If she had stayed in Newark, Lee said, “I definitely wouldn’t be who I am today.” But it wasn’t the move that turned her life around.

“It’s more I credit Jesus for that,” she said, and A Place for Us Ministries was “the reason I even pursued a relationship with Jesus Christ.”

In May 2015, Heaven Lee lost both of her jobs.

Later that same month, she found out she was pregnant.

Lee went to Nurse Family Partnership, a national organization affiliated in South Carolina with the Department of Health and Environmental Control. There, she met nurse Ruthie Parnell. “She’s from the very beginning,” Lee said.

“We see first-time, low-income mothers from pregnancy until the babies turn 2,” Parnell said. “We see them at home, library, even work, lunch — we just meet them where they’re at.”

Parnell worked to find a home for Lee, who was at risk of becoming homeless. Lee went to the Anderson Crisis Pregnancy Center, which, in turn, referred her to A Place for Us Ministries in Greenwood.

According to its website, A Place for Us exists to “minister to the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of girls facing crisis situations. We provide physical care in the form of a home for the residents and practical training related to homemaking and parenthood.”

There were rules at A Place for Us, all of which Lee found onerous, but is grateful for in hindsight: No phone. No social media. No contact with the baby’s father. She could only read Christian-themed books, which was especially chafing — Lee is a big fan of James Patterson.

Lee hated church growing up. Because of her name, people would ask her whether she was religious. “I’d be like ‘Yeah,’ but just because my mom was a Christian.”

That changed at A Place for Us.

“There was one night, I had a dream. I felt as though God was talking to me, wanting to have a relationship with me. And I was saying no because I was afraid that I would end up failing him.”

Nevertheless, “Once my relationship with Jesus (began) things started changing in me.”

There was another rule that chafed: no work or school for a year after the baby is born. While A Place for Us tends to residents’ material needs, they would tend to those of their babies, the logic went.

Six months after Nick was born, Lee enrolled in Piedmont Tech.

“I did that behind their backs,” she said, smiling. “I felt the longer I waited, the more likely I wouldn’t go back.”

Her initial plan was to study criminal justice. “I always wanted to be a police officer,” Lee said. But “this was when police officers were being targeted, and I was a single mom.”

Student support services suggested engineering due to the scores on her entrance examinations. She made the switch before classes started.

She was nervous about engineering at first. “I’m a female around nothing but guys,” she thought. “What if they don’t want to work with me?”

And the coursework was difficult. Lee said she had considered dropping out on several occasions.

“Why didn’t I quit? Because of the people around me,” she said in a voice that acknowledged the cliché. “Papa Sam (Hart), Mama K. And my teachers. They were hounding.”

Hart would watch Nick when Lee had night classes.

Lee earned an associate degree in mechanical engineering technology and another in engineering design technology, and is now pursuing a bachelor in mechanical engineering at S.C. State University, which offers classes in the major on PTC’s campus.

Lee would like to be a mechanical drafter. “It’s taking both my degrees and putting them into one.” But that might change because those opportunities aren’t here as much as they are in Greenville.

Parnell has been with Nurse Family Partnership for three years, and yet Lee has had “more roadblocks and obstacles and tragedy than I’ve ever seen in a person.” She noted Lee’s transformation “from this quiet young girl with no support, who now has her double major, and now believes in God, and prays all the time and gives God all the glory for what she does, and is a phenomenal mom.”

In her graduation speech, Lee listed some of the honors and awards she’s earned in the past two years.

“I say this not to brag but to instill hope in all of you,” Lee said. “Growing up, I never would have seen myself where I am today.”

___

Information from: The Index-Journal, http://www.indexjournal.com

AP RADIO
Update hourly