EDGEWOOD, Ky. — Sabrennah Bacon possesses self-confidence that seems beyond her 18 years.
She walks with her shoulders back and head held high. Her conversation is free of "ums" or "likes." She doesn't even fuss about pictures of herself, saying without a hint of conceit that she looks good in all of them.
I can't help but wonder if that maturity comes in part from what she experienced during the long, awful time that she and her parents were homeless.
For about a year and a half, Sabrennah lived with her mom and dad in the family's SUV. They parked at an interstate rest stop to sleep. Sabrennah spent most of her sophomore and junior years in high school living that way. She washed her hair in the sink of the rest stop bathroom and used baby wipes that her mom bought to bathe everything else.
"It was pretty scary at times," Sabrennah says. "While we were there (at the rest stop), a lady overdosed on heroin around 3 o'clock in the morning."
Sabrennah tells me this matter-of-factly during a break from her job as an intern at UpSpring's Summer 360° camp for kids experiencing homelessness. She's comfortable telling her story, Sabrennah says.
And she's confident that she's exactly where she should be this summer, working with kids just a few years younger than she was when she and her mom and dad started sleeping in that SUV.
"Life kind of throws you curve balls, and you've just got to work through it," Sabrennah tells me. "Hard work will make everything better. That's what my dad always says."
I think about how hard Sabrennah's parents had to work to go from sleeping in that SUV to moving back into a house. How hard Sabrennah had to work to graduate from high school. And how hard she'll have to work to follow her dream to attend the Art Institute of Atlanta this fall.
But before we talk about all that, I tell her I want to know more about how she lived for that year and a half.
'I Didn't Have Any Friends'
Sabrennah had almost nothing at a time when other girls her age were worried about boys and dances and makeup and pimples.
The family's financial trouble started long before they were living in the SUV. Sabrennah and her parents bounced around, staying with various family members for short periods of time, before they wound up parked at the rest stop in Richwood.
Sabrennah started attending Simon Kenton High School in Kenton County after her parents lost their Boone County home to foreclosure. She was a new kid there. And although she had straight As at her old school, she quickly became a straight-D student as she grappled with the chaos in her life.
"I didn't really talk to anyone," she says. "I didn't have any friends."
I ask her whether teachers or anyone else at the school tried to help her or asked if something was wrong.
"I didn't show up to school a lot. Sometimes we didn't have the gas money. I was on truancy," she tells me. "If teachers asked, I just lied to them. They just kind of thought I was a problem child."
But she wasn't. She was a child with a big problem.
The way Sabrennah explains it, her parents were trying as hard as they could. Her mom has health problems that make it nearly impossible for her to work. Her dad took just about any job he could to support the family. But for a long time, they were temporary jobs, and he didn't always get many hours.
They spent whatever money they earned trying to keep Sabrennah as happy and healthy as they could.
Her 16th birthday fell on Mother's Day, and they spent that night in a hotel for a special treat. Sabrennah's dad used his whole paycheck that night to take Sabrennah to dinner at Maggiano's Little Italy — her favorite restaurant.
"That was a good birthday," she says with a smile.
Still, Sabrennah missed so much of what most kids experience in high school. She missed dances and sleepovers and friendships.
Things started to turn around for Sabrennah and her parents right before her 17th birthday. Her dad finally got a good, steady job and they were able to move back into a real home.
And Sabrennah discovered a new path at school through the Gemini College Academy— a partnership between Thomas More College and the school district's Kenton County Academies of Innovation & Technology. Through the program, Sabrennah was able to take college courses and complete the requirements she needed to complete high school.
She studied her tail off and made some friends. Sabrennah finished the program with 29 college credits. And with the extra weight that the grades from her college-level courses carried, she managed to boost her 2.8 GPA to a 4.0 by the time she graduated.
'Just Sticking With It'
Alex Kuhns knew a little about Sabrennah's background when she applied to work for the Summer 360° camp at Caywood Elementary School in Edgewood. Kuhns is UpSpring's program director and the Caywood summer camp director. And when he was in the middle of hiring people for the camp back in February, some people from Kenton County School District reached out to him to recommend Sabrennah.
The district folks were worried Sabrennah might not be old enough for the job because the interns are typically college students. They wanted to explain that Sabrennah's own background gave her insights into the UpSpring campers that other candidates for the job wouldn't have.
Kuhns says her work this summer has been nothing short of "incredible."
"With Sabrennah having been homeless herself for quite a long time, she understands the hardships that our kids are going through and some of the emotional things that may not be on the surface," he says.
Sabrennah has been a big help in the classroom, managing campers' behaviors and moods. And she also serves as one of the camp's bus monitors, riding one of the camp's two school buses every morning and every afternoon to make sure the kids behave and get where they need to be.
"She was apprehensive, but she has just really shined in that role," Kuhns says. "She has a strong connection with each kid. She gets to know the parents when they're waiting at the stops. She thinks very proactively about whether it's safe to let a kid off at a stop."
Sabrennah pays close attention to which kids are missing the bus and why. She has recommended changes in the bus routes to accommodate families when it makes sense, and she has encouraged families to make other arrangements when she sees that would be better for the kids.
"Her empathy is second to none," Kuhs says. "She's teaching them how to be successful by making good choices or just sticking with it."
Sabrennah knows a lot about that. And she knows how difficult it can be to focus on the future when you're a kid experiencing homelessness.
"I was pretty angry the entire time," Sabrennah says of the time she was homeless. "I didn’t talk to my parents that much."
Now Sabrennah is looking ahead to college. She plans to attend the Art Institute of Atlanta's culinary program in the fall, thanks to the college credits she earned, some scholarship money and financial aid.
Her mom and dad are worried. They aren't homeless anymore. But they don't have much of a safety net for Sabrennah, and she'll be so far away from home.
But Sabrennah is determined to succeed. She wants to leave Kentucky and her sad memories behind. She wants to go to culinary school and open her own restaurant some day.
For the rest of the summer, though, her goal is to be the example that the kids at Summer 360° need — even if they don't realize they need it.
"I want to show them that they don't have to be homeless, they don't have to repeat the cycle. They can progress and do great things with their lives," she tells me. "I want to show them that it's truly possible. It's not just something people say to them."
It's definitely not just something that Sabrennah says. She's showing them — every single day.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, to go www.wcpo.com/poverty.