CINCINNATI -- Before Amanda Neal got her car fixed, her weekdays started at 4 a.m. and often didn't end until after midnight.
She had to get herself ready and then wake her three kids to get them cleaned up, dressed and fed before they left their home in Westwood. She would take them on a series of buses to school or daycare before she rode a bus to Chatfield College in Over-the-Rhine.
She'd finish classes just in time to get back on the bus to pick up her kids and get them home and fed before she had to leave again for her job as a home health care provider. It took an hour and 40 minutes on the bus to get to work in Hyde Park and then another hour and 40 minutes to get home after her shift. Neal would do homework and then fall into bed for a few hours sleep before the whole routine started over.
It's easier now that Neal's car is running again, she said. But it's by no means easy to be a single mom, just getting by financially while juggling college classes and a job.
So why does Neal do it?
"I want to prove that I can," she said, her eyes moist with tears. "Like, you can be somebody. Even if it's a small somebody. That's what I want. And that's what I want to show my kids."
Thousands of families across Greater Cincinnati live in poverty or on the brink of financial disaster. And places like Chatfield College offer up education as the path out.
"Most of our students are low-income, poverty level," said Sister Patricia Homan, vice president of mission and identity, interim dean and site director for the Chatfield College's campuses in Over-the-Rhine and Brown County. "I can't tell you how many of them come not really believing they can succeed. I think once they have that faith in themselves and understand that they can succeed, it's a whole different person that shows up."
This is a story about Neal and Nakela Williams, two Chatfield students who are working hard to create better lives for their children and transforming themselves along the way.
'Life situations got in the way'
Both Neal and Williams have started college several times before without finishing.
Neal, who is 27, has tried college four or five times since she graduated from high school in 2007, sometimes attending classes on a campus and other times taking courses online.
"Life situations got in the way," she said. "I had kids. I got married. I got divorced."
When she decided to give Chatfield a try, the financial aid counselor there told her that these would be the last student loans she could get.
"He said, 'you can't mess up. This is your last shot,'" Neal said.
Understanding that has made her all the more determined to make college work this time so she can get a two-year degree from Chatfield and pursue a career as a social worker.
The small class sizes are helping, she said. Neal's math class has only three students in it, which means she can get all the individual attention from her instructor that she needs.
"I just want to get a degree so I can get a good job that I like," she said. "So I feel like I'm doing something that I'm good at, and I'm actually helping somebody that needs help."
Neal isn't looking to get rich. She just wants a better life for herself and her kids, who are 7, 5 and 18 months old.
"It would be less stressful not to have to worry about is there going to be enough money to do everything we have to do," she said.
Neal wants to be able to save money so she can fix her car if it breaks down and take care of the other little expenses that seem to pop up unexpectedly.
"I won't have to worry about little things like that," she said. "They all add up to be big things later on."
For now, her biggest enemy is time and having enough of it to get everything done.
Her oldest plays basketball, and it's a challenge for Neal to get her to practices two days a week and games on the weekend. Then there is Neal's homework, and helping her children with their homework and doing the laundry and housework and everything else it takes to keep a family going.
"Time I think is my biggest struggle right now," she said. "Just managing everything and making sure I'm on time everywhere."
But Neal gets a lot of support at Chatfield, from the instructors and staff as well as fellow students, she said.
"I haven't met anybody so far that's been mean to me," she said. "It's only my second semester. But so far there's a lot of help."
Career versus job
Williams, who is 26, started college at the University of Cincinnati right out of high school because she had credits that would transfer. But the classes felt way too big for her, she said.
She tried Chatfield once before but went into labor during class and left the school. She tried online classes after that then took a break from college in 2011 and focused on work and supporting her daughters, who are now 5 and 6.
But Williams was in a wreck that totaled her car and left her unable to work. She went back to Chatfield last summer while she continues to recover.
"Here, it's more personalized," Williams said. "Most of my instructors know me by name where I can stop them in the hallways and ask for help."
She has been able to maintain a 4.0 grade point average and was inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. Chatfield instructors and staff also have encouraged her to apply for scholarships that she didn't know existed.
That all makes a huge difference as Williams works to make ends meet with a 15-hour work-study job at Chatfield's library, some help from the state and financial support from the father of one of her children.
She plans to finish her two-year degree at Chatfield, then transfer to a four-year school and -- in time -- get a master's degree. Ultimately she wants to open a group home for troubled teens and young adults who have gotten too old for other services but still need help to get their lives back on track.
"It's the difference between a career and a job," she said. "I want to be the mom that I can go to work and still have time to come home and be with my kids. Paycheck to paycheck is just not what I want anymore."
She sees her education and her goals as her best shot at stability. Williams wants to be able to put her kids through school and maybe someday buy a house that her children could own after her.
"It's like our legacy," she said.
She lives in the Western Hills area and spends lots of time on the bus getting her kids to school and herself to Chatfield -- not to mention the mile she walks from home to her bus stop and back each round trip.
But all the time, hassle and juggling have been worth it, she said.
"It gets difficult, but it's not unbearable," she said. "I think now I'm happier than I ever have been."
Every good grade and positive comment on a paper helps Williams know that she's on the right path for her family's future.
"I want to be able to make my kids proud to where they're happy to say that's my mom," she said. "Me finishing, it basically is my kids' future."
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and 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, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.