CINCINNATI — Jasmine Askins spent a big chunk of her childhood having people tell her what she couldn't do.
As a kid living in Lower Price Hill whose family didn't have a lot of money, she heard a lot about limitations.
"We were told that we weren't going to be anything," said Askins, who is now 19. "People just didn't believe in us as much."
Askins also has hearing loss. And that's part of what has motivated her to prove those people wrong.
"My teachers and my audiologists were like, 'You're not supposed to make it this far. There's no way you should be as smart as you are. No way you should be able to communicate,'" she told me.
"That inspired me. It made me believe in myself, and I want to be an example for other people who have hearing loss or any disability."
Now Askins is a sophomore at the University of Cincinnati majoring in health promotion and education. She's the first person in her immediate family to go to college (Her stepdad got a college football scholarship but got hurt and never finished). She plans to start a pre-med track next fall.
I met her and two other first-generation college students at UC while reporting about efforts to help low-income students finance their college educations.
Like other determined young people I have met while writing about poverty for WCPO, Jasmine Askins gave me hope.
And when it comes to addressing our region's pervasive childhood poverty problem, hope is important.
One in five kids in the Tri-State — 105,000 children below the age of 18 — live below the federal poverty level, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. In the city of Cincinnati, 47.2 percent of all children — more than 30,000 — are poor.
Some of our region's most influential business, community and faith leaders have come together in an initiative known as the Child Poverty Collaborative to reduce those numbers.
They're working to create a plan — with the help of local nonprofits and families who are living in poverty — to help lift 10,000 children out of poverty within five years and help 5,000 unemployed or underemployed adults get jobs. The goal is to unveil the plan this summer.
But Cincinnati's young people can't wait. Teenagers like Askins are charting their own paths to better lives with the support of places like UC's Gen-1 House for first-generation college students.
'Very, Very … Lost'
Each year, about a fourth of UC's freshmen are first-generation college students, said Suzette Combs, director of UC's Gen-1 and Cincinnati Pride Grant Program.
The percentage is even higher at Northern Kentucky University, where more than half of NKU's 15,000 students are first-generation college students.
About half of UC's first-generation students also have family incomes low enough to be eligible for federal Pell grants, Combs said.
The UC Gen-1 House has 90 first-generation students living there, and all must be Pell-eligible, she said.
That's where Askins lives.
Timothy Berry and Dominique Jackson live there, too.
Berry and Jackson are both third-year students at UC, and they also have big dreams for their futures.
Berry, who graduated from Withrow University High School in 2013, said he didn't realize how unprepared he was for college until he got to UC.
"I was just very unprepared with my study habits and the overall goal of college. I was just told, 'Go to college.' I was never told what to do while you're in school, what to look forward to," he said. "I was just very, very, for a moment, lost."
Berry switched his major four or five times before becoming a sociology major with a minor in Africana Studies. He's planning to go to graduate school, earn a Ph.D., become a college professor at a four-year university and eventually work as a university administrator.
Jackson is majoring in communications with a minor in business management.
Although his dad pushed the importance of academics all his life, Jackson said he started considering college more seriously when he was a student at Taft Information Technology High School. He graduated in 2013.
"I started thinking after high school, 'If I really want to get to where I want to be at, college would probably be the best path for me to go,'" he told me. "I'm not like 6-foot something. Football — that was just high school."
My older daughter will be 20 in March. She's about the same age as Askins and a little younger than Berry and Jackson, who are both 21. I have spent a lot of time talking to young people in their age group. And the three of them were among the most impressive young adults I've ever met.
Hoping to 'Save Someone Else'
None of them came from families that could set aside thousands of dollars each year for their college educations.
Their parents work hard but don't earn big money. Before Askins, Berry and Jackson technically became adults — and I say technically because they still seem so young to me — they were among the thousands of children whose futures our community wants to make more secure.
They managed to get to college before the Child Poverty Collaborative even began. They found resources — and resources found them — to get them where they are now.
And before long, if everything goes as planned, Greater Cincinnati will have three new college graduates with skills to make our community an even better place.
Which takes me back to Askins.
During my initial interview with her, she told me about medical school. But I forgot to ask if she knew what specialty she wanted to pursue.
I texted her the question, and she replied:
"I would love to become an OB/GYN. My aunt gave birth to my stillborn cousin, and she passed away days later, and it really inspired me to want to specialize in high-risk pregnancies to one day hopefully save someone else."
How many other future doctors in our community are being told they won't amount to anything? And how many more of them could grow up to do great things with just a little more support from the rest of us?
Askins is so focused on helping others that she asked me to publish her email address so people could contact her if they wanted. Berry and Jackson said that was fine with them, too. As the mother of a 19-year-old, though, I'm not comfortable doing that.
If you want to contact any of these three students, email me and I'll pass along your contact information.
They all have a lot to say — and a lot of hope to offer.
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.