Stacy McCarter thought education would help her escape.
Escape the generational poverty she grew up in in the West End neighborhood of St. Louis. Escape the violence that landed her and her children in a domestic violence shelter when she was married.
“I kept trying to find a way to escape it all,” McCarter says. “I ran head first to school.”
In May, McCarter graduated with a degree in early childhood education from Misericordia University in Dallas, Penn. It is a private university founded by the Sisters of Mercy. She is the first person in her family to have a university degree. Her road to graduation, a job, and hope for her family went through many potholes.
As a child, McCarter attended Parkway Schools as part of the area’s voluntary transfer program. She dropped out of Parkway North High School before graduating. She eventually joined an employment corps program and graduated. She tried St. Louis Community College and it didn’t work out.
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Obstacles continued to get in the way.
“Life has happened,” McCarter says. She thought she had it figured out when she enrolled at Harris-Stowe State University and got a job at the school’s daycare, so she could be close to her children. But the bills, including tuition and childcare, again proved too high.
“Things were very difficult for me,” she recalls. “I always wanted more but couldn’t figure it out.”
That’s when the pastor of his church, Maplewood United Methodist Church, stepped in. Pastor Kim Shirar had heard of a program in Pennsylvania called the Ruth Matthews Bourger Women With Children Program. It is a unique residential center at Miseracordia University that helps single mothers earn a college degree.
McCarter didn’t want to leave St. Louis. It was a place she had never heard of, in a rural area of a distant state. But she prayed. She looked for signs. She took the leap.
“We had nowhere to go.”
Students pay tuition to the school, although they may be eligible for financial aid. The program pays for housing and utilities, childcare, food allowances, and even after-school activities for children.
McCarter describes each of his children by their unique gifts.
Sophia, 11, is the writer.
Allen, 8, is the genius. “We call him preacher, lawyer, doctor.”
Elijah, 6, is the athlete.
They are her pride and joy, and now, she says, because she has a college degree, they have a future. This is how the Women With Children program sees itself, says its director, Katherine Pohlidal. It’s not just about saving one generation, but two.
“It’s a sustainable way to lift families out of poverty, two generations at a time,” says Pohlidal. The program, supported by donations, is growing, and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, recently quoted it in his annual address to the Legislature, suggesting that public universities in the state should consider adding more such programs. Misericordia’s program is one of eight similar programs in the country, but the only one that fully covers the cost of housing. Each graduate of the program, Pohlidal says, goes on to a professional career. Some of the program’s first graduates since its inception in 2000 now have children graduating from college.
McCarter was hired as a special education teacher at Wilkes-Barre Public Schools. She misses Saint-Louis and thinks about coming back, but for now, she is on the path she believes God intended for her.
“We single mothers are important. Having our education increases our abilities and knowledge,” she says. “I think of all the women whose daycare bills are out of control and who can’t afford to stay in school. I just want them to have a chance. I pray that Missouri wakes up and finds a way to pilot programs like this.