COVINGTON, Ky. -- Less than a year ago, Cyndy Rodewald was staying at a homeless shelter with three of her children, worrying about how she would get her life back on track.
Then she saw a flyer promoting the new Lincoln Grant Scholar House. Designed as a two-generation approach to reducing poverty, Scholar House serves single parents with young children as long as the parents are enrolled as full-time college students.
She called right away and walked a mile from Family Promise of Northern Kentucky’s daytime shelter in Newport to Covington to learn more.
Becoming a Scholar House resident meant filling out papers, meeting requirements and, most difficult of all, making the decision to move in without her 23-year-old son. But Rodewald did it all, and she and her two youngest children became the first family to move into the Lincoln Grant Scholar House apartments last Dec. 22.
“It was a very bare apartment because I didn’t have anything quite yet. I had an air mattress that was donated from a lady at Newport schools. And we had paper dishes,” Rodewald said with a smile. “But they had a stable roof. They didn’t have to move from place to place. And we got to have Christmas dinner together -- just us.”
Now Rodewald, 42, is enrolled as a full-time college student studying to become a social worker. She has made Dean’s List two semesters in a row.
“If it hadn’t been for Lincoln Grant, I wouldn’t have gotten all these opportunities,” she said. “This is the third time I’ve been in school. So this time, I’m determined. I’m not stopping for anything.”
WCPO has spent the past six months following Rodewald’s experience to better understand the difference that the Scholar House program can make for single parents and their kids. Her story is far from over. But to understand how far she has come, we asked her about how she and her kids became homeless in the first place.
Rodewald’s struggles started long before then.
‘I proved them wrong’
“I was a state baby,” Rodewald said, “born and raised in Illinois.”
Taken from her birth mother when she was just 18 months old, Rodewald lived with a family that adopted her when she was eight. But after being abused in that home, she went back into the foster care system at the age of 11.
She got pregnant and gave birth to her first son when she was 16. He ended up living with his grandparents. Rodewald stayed in a group home for a while and graduated from high school, which she knew even then was an accomplishment.
“Everybody said you’re never going to graduate. You’re a single mom,” she said. “I proved them wrong.”
Eventually Rodewald met her first husband and was with him for almost 11 years. But he was abusive, she said, and she left him.
She met her second husband and has been with him on and off for 15 years. She followed him to Northern Kentucky when he was extradited for criminal charges and left two of her daughters in Illinois with their dad.
That’s when things got worse.
“I became a crack addict,” she said. “I wasn’t a good mom.”
She got clean after two years and moved to Alabama to stay with friends. That’s where she met a woman from Mexico who was like a mother to her. Rodewald learned to speak fluent Spanish and also learned how to be a good mother and a strong woman, she said.
She gave birth to her two youngest children, Alex, who is 10, and Mily, who is six, before moving back to Northern Kentucky.
“My husband and I got back together and came back here,” she said. “We were good for about three years. And then all of a sudden we weren’t OK anymore. So he left. That’s where this part of the story starts.”
She had reunited with one of her grown sons, and the two of them and Alex and Mily started staying with friends or in motels -- anywhere they could afford -- until finally they couldn’t afford anyplace.
‘You can do it!’
Family Promise of Northern Kentucky gave them all a place to stay, she said, but it wasn’t easy. Like the other families that rely on Family Promise, Rodewald and her kids moved from church to local church for a place to sleep.
The apartment at Lincoln Grant Scholar House gave Rodewald, Alex and Mily a place to call their own. Rodewald enrolled at Gateway Community and Technical College to begin a four-year degree that she will finish at Northern Kentucky University.
She got Alex and Mily enrolled in Covington Independent Public Schools. And they all got to work.
“They make me cry at least once a week,” Rodewald said of Alex and Mily. “They say: ‘We’re so proud of you, Mom. Just keep trying! You can do it, Mommy!’”
But it hasn’t been easy.
Rodewald has had three different part-time jobs over the past year. She loved her first job at Gateway, but the professor that oversaw her work no longer teaches there.
She got a different job at Gateway, working with Project ASPIRE to help first-generation and low-income students and students with disabilities.
But that program moved away from Gateway’s Covington campus. Without a car, Rodewald couldn’t continue to work there.
Now, Rodewald works part-time at Lincoln Grant Scholar House as a community liaison, helping new residents and others in the neighborhood learn about everything the program has to offer.
Lincoln Grant was the second Scholar House program in the region. The first, called Northern Kentucky Scholar House, is in Newport. A third is being planned for Cincinnati.
The program provides subsidized housing for single parents and their young children as long as the parents are full-time college students.
The Covington location is filled with 45 families, said Shellie Baker, the director and academic adviser for Lincoln Grant Scholar House. Most are single moms with kids, but there are three single dads there who have custody of their kids, too.
“We want to get the single parents a degree of some sort so they can earn a livable wage and maintain their own self sufficiency without any assistance,” she said.
Parents must be low-income and meet Section 8 guidelines to qualify for the program. They are not permitted to have overnight guests, and they must meet with Scholar House staff a few times a month.
Lincoln Grant Scholar House partners with agencies to offer other services, too. Women’s Crisis Center is onsite twice a month, for example, because 86 percent of Scholar House residents have experienced some sort of domestic violence.
‘It’s better than before’
For Rodewald, Scholar House has been about building community. She and the other parents can count on each other, she said, whether it’s with impromptu childcare or lending an ear after a tough day.
It has been tough for Rodewald to know that her 23-year-old son, Nick Tabor, is homeless. But Tabor said he’s glad his mom took advantage of the Scholar House opportunity.
“I’m extremely proud of her,” he said. “Not to mention she’s made Dean’s List both semesters.”
Tabor can shower and do laundry at his mom’s apartment, and he keeps some of his belongings there.
He said he’s glad Rodewald, Alex and Mily have a place to stay that allows his mom to save up money for their next move after she graduates.
“It’s less likely that they will have to struggle in the future,” he said. “It makes me feel amazing.”
Life already has changed dramatically for Rodewald’s younger children.
“It’s better than before,” Alex said when asked how Scholar House compares to staying at the shelter. “We actually get to run around and play, but where we used to live all we really could do was play with toys and watch movies so we didn’t really get to be active that much.”
Little Mily is in first grade this year, and her favorite part of school is when it’s time to go home.
She said her mom works hard, and Mily understands why.
“So we can have a good family and have money,” she said. “Because we need lots of food and stuff.”
Baker said Rodewald has been a role model for other Scholar House residents, too.
She remembers the day Rodewald and her kids moved into their third-floor apartment. There’s no elevator to the third floor, and all Baker could think about was what a hassle it would be to carry groceries up all those steps. Rodewald had a different take.
“She was like, ‘Wow! Look at the view from this place,’” Baker said. “She’s an exceptional person in the program.”
Rodewald said she’s working as hard as she can to be the best mom and provider she can be. Lincoln Grant Scholar House has shown her what she can be, she said, and she yearns to help others in her new career.
For now, she and the other Lincoln Grant Scholar House parents are planning a big Christmas celebration to give back to the community. None of them have lots of extra cash. But they have time and passion, and they want to help their neighbors in need.
Plus, Rodewald wants her kids to understand how important that is.
“Somebody else did it for us. So we’re going to do the same,” she tells them. “We may not have much. But you have more than enough of everything so we need to give back.”
That’s a much better view than the family had this time last year.
WCPO Digital Reporter Lucy May and Photojournalist Emily Maxwell spent six months in 2017 talking with Cyndy Rodewald about her family’s experience at Lincoln Grant Scholar House to see the program’s two-generation approach to poverty reduction in action.
Reporting on poverty has been an important focus for May and Maxwell and for WCPO. To read more stories about poverty, go to wcpo.com/poverty.