The Look of Success
It has been more than five years, yet for Ellie Densford, the memory of that day still feels fresh. The officer was talking, “…your mother is in jail …,” she made out. She remembers immediately thinking, “What’s she in for this time?” Her mother’s drug addiction and previous arrests meant it was not unusual for Densford and her two younger sisters to find a squad car parked outside their home. “It was never a surprise to see the police,” said Densford. “But that didn’t mean it hurt any less.”
Densford was 17 then and had already been saddled for years with such weighty adult issues as worrying if she’d be kicked out if she did not help to pay rent, and if she and her sisters — Aubrey, 15, and Kara, 16 — would end up being separated. In addition to her workload as a high school senior, Densford also had two part-time jobs that kept her busy at night and on weekends. And although she’d always loved fashion — when she was younger, she recalls her bows had to match her outfit — she never imagined having a career or that college was a place for her. That is until she started participating in an after-school tutoring program and was introduced to Communities In Schools of South Central Texas.
As part of a program called Project Success, Densford met weekly with Liberty Nicholas, the Communities In Schools site coordinator at New Braunfels High School. The sessions covered college readiness for roughly 100 students. Nicholas also helped Densford with setting and achieving goals, staying motivated and learning how to adapt to changing life situations. Within months, the power of this one-on-one relationship had helped Densford map out a strategy to become the first in her family to go to college.
“Meeting Miss Liberty was life changing,” she said. “Before Communities In Schools, I didn’t have mentors or anyone to guide me. They encouraged me. And at a time when things were down, I remember it made me feel uplifted. They made us feel like even though it was bad at the time, things did not always have to be that way.”
Like a personal stylist in training, Densford paired the resources she received from Communities In Schools with her own determination, and the resulting combination helped create a future where she’d have more opportunities.
“Ellie knew she wanted a better life,” said Nicholas, a licensed social worker. “She was overwhelmed with her work, school and home life, but she also had drive. She did the work and did what she needed to make things better.”
Project Success provided Densford and her sisters with health and human services support, school supplies and counseling to help them get through times when the family did not have a lot of food and times when they were on public assistance.
Densford is particularly grateful for a Thanksgiving meal that Communities In Schools arranged to be delivered to her family, a ride she needed on the day she took her SATs and, most importantly, that Nicholas was someone she could alwayscount on for compassion and calm.
“She never made me feel like I was hassling her with anything,” said Densford.
Today Densford is 22 and a fashion merchandising major at Texas State University, pursuing her goal of becoming a personal stylist. As part of the Project Success alumni program, Densford continues to receive comprehensive services that support her college success. Communities In Schools understands that help with yearly financial aid forms and costly dorm supplies can go a long way toward making sure first-generation students not only get to college,but stay and graduate.
Densford’s sisters followed in her successful footsteps and are also currently enrolled in college. So appreciative is Densford of the support she receives from Communities In Schools that she volunteers to speak to students at her former high school, and has given tours of her college campus to inspire them.
“I want to let them know they can do it — overcome whatever obstacles they’re facing and achieve their goals,” said Densford. “I know it’s possible because I did.”
Smiling Toward Tomorrow: A Student Success Story
by Christy Wylie
Alexis Arteaga, a freshman at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), reflects on the challenges of her past and the hopes of her future. She showcases a bright smile held in place by a gleaming new set of braces and speaks with a confident ease.
By the time Alexis had reached the 5th grade, her family had moved close to 20 times. By the 7th grade, she had lived in six different states, countless cities, and had attended more schools than she can remember. The Arteaga family was constantly on the move, either running away from domestic discord and lost jobs or running toward fleeting hopes of a better life. Alexis’s father battled alcoholism, did stints of jail time, and was separated from their mother. To make ends meet, her mother sometimes had to take multiple jobs and rely on friends and family for a place to live. Alexis recalls living in borrowed rooms with her mother, brother and sister for periods sometimes as brief as two weeks, and never for more than a year. The instability put a strain on Alexis, both emotionally and academically.
The summer between her sophomore and junior years, Alexis found herself at New Braunfels High School, where she learned for the first time about Communities In Schools of South Central Texas. At school registration, Alexis’s mother had met Liberty Nicholas, the Communities In Schools project director who would serve as Alexis’s case manager. As Nicholas packed a box of school supplies for Alexis and her brother, Mrs. Arteaga immediately began to open up, explaining that her marriage had recently ended, and that her children may need counseling. Two weeks into the new school year, Nicholas followed up by inviting Alexis to her office to explain the broad range of services for which she was eligible. Alexis began attending Communities In Schools homework club and counseling sessions after school. She received assistance with medical and dental care since her family didn’t have health insurance. Nicholas enlisted the help of the New Braunfels Volunteers in Medicine, which provides free medical and dental services to individuals without the means to pay for health care. Also with the help of Communities In Schools, Alexis was able to order her senior pictures, graduation invitations, and a cap and gown.
Among all the Communities In Schools services this bright young lady received, however, Alexis is most grateful for the help she received from an initiative unique to Communities In Schools of South Central Texas: Project Success. Coordinated with the campus career centers and school counselors, and headed by the program’s director, Aimee Victoria, its purpose is to empower graduating high school students to prepare for post-secondary education. Many Project Success participants are potentially first generation college students who need assistance with determining their future goals and overcoming barriers to post-secondary education including family situations, finances, and lack of awareness. Victoria reflects, “Alexis had this determination that she was going to make it.” And sure enough, with the help of Project Success, Alexis applied for scholarships and was awarded an impressive $43,000 in grant and scholarship money. Communities In Schools supported Alexis in her many college application endeavors including writing essays, answering interview questions, gathering letters of reference, and meeting deadlines. “I couldn’t have done it by myself,” she points out.
Alexis is the first person in her family to attend college. “I’ve made family history,” she proclaims proudly. “Project Success helped me break through the barrier of not being sure if I could do it. The best thing ever is to hear my little sister and cousin say they want to be like me.” This achievement surpasses anything in her life. Victoria of Project Success beams, “Alexis has a very good heart and wants to give back.”
Despite her setbacks, Alexis scored well on her SATs. She was accepted at Baylor University and at UTSA, where she now studies. She is majoring in biology, which she hopes will lead to a career in orthodontics. When asked where she sees herself in 10 years, she envisions herself having her own practice and family. “I want to be a wife and a mom and open doors for my kids that have been opened for me.”
Why an orthodontist? Alexis explains, “I love kids, so I thought maybe I should be a teacher or a pediatrician. But I would see too many sad things. Everything I thought of, there was a downside. Then, I thought about how my mom has always told me to smile. She taught me that once you’ve been through so much in life, nothing can bring you down. Even when we had no money and no place to live, she always found a way to make us happy.” Alexis pauses to muse over how she arrived at her career choice. “I want to be an orthodontist because I want to help people with their smiles.” She concludes simply, “With smiles, there is no downside.”