CARE-ing to Succeed

Christina Kenney postponed the birth of her fourth child because she would have missed a mandatory orientation for an aid program at Modesto Junior College.

Kenney was hoping to participate in MJC's CARE program -- Cooperative Agencies Resources for Education -- which would help cover living expenses while she attended classes at MJC. That's how much she needed CARE's help -- she held off on a Caesarean section delivery of her son, Robert Jr.

"Yeah, it's a big deal (Robert's birth), but it's what I had to do," said Kenney, now a 26-year-old mother of five boys. She hopes to graduate from MJC this summer with an associate degree in human services and find a job as a social worker.

Without CARE's assistance, Kenney and many other participants said they would not be going to college. The program gives welfare-receiving single parents vouchers for textbooks, gas and food and helps with child care costs. The students must improve their grades each semester, and attend three workshops and three counseling sessions each semester. About 160 students participate in the state program, an offshoot of Extended Opportunity Programs and Services.

Kenney said her dad died of alcoholism when she was young and her mom is a bipolar schizophrenic and recovering addict. She had her first child when she was 15. She took the high school equivalency exam to get her diploma.

Kenney lives with her boyfriend and works as a certified nurse's assistant at a convalescent home 32 hours a week while attending school full time and taking care of her kids. She and her older sons -- her children are between 1 and 11 years old -- often do their homework together.

"These are students ... making under $15,000. The state calls it low-income. It's poverty," said Bryan Justin Marks, the outgoing CARE program representative.

CARE's budget at MJC is a little more than $200,000. Most of that money pays for child care. Though the state plans to make significant budget cuts this fall, Marks said CARE should take a smaller hit than other programs.

In the past, 30 to 50 CARE participants -- or nearly a third -- dropped out each year. In the past school year, 10 were lost, Marks said. Eighty percent of CARE students had grade- point averages above 2.0 last year.

CARE reinforces academic success, but also improves parenting and job skills. Mandatory workshops range from how to dress for an interview to exploring the Stanislaus County Library to the importance of voting. Students' children can attend some of the workshops.

"The workshops are a nicer version of boot camp. We're trying to get rid of these bad habits that have been inherited through positive reinforcement," Marks said.

CARE alumna Lori Dangerfield stressed the personal relationships students develop with counselors. The counseling and workshops keep students on task and allow them to keep in touch, she said.

Dangerfield, 40, has a 6-year-old daughter and earned an associate degree from MJC in 2004. She's finishing up her bachelor's in sociology at Chapman University while working as an outreach recruiter at MJC. She hopes to get a master's degree and work at MJC's CARE program someday.

"I don't even want to think about what I would have done without MJC or this program," she said. "Their students are just as worthy and academically important as any other student. No one can do anything by themselves."

College isn't like high school, said CARE student Shiloh Garcia, 22. In college, no one cares if you're coming to class. It's a hard adjustment for many people, she said.

"No one is keeping track of you," said Garcia, who has a 6-year-old son.

Garcia plans to transfer to California State University, Stanislaus, after the fall semester. Though the university doesn't have a similar program, Garcia said CARE gives people the skills to succeed without CARE's safety net.

"This program has shown me I can do it," she said. "Just knowing that I did it, and showing me the skills I have and where I can get help" has made the difference.

Marks agreed, saying CARE gives students skills that help them outside the classroom, too.

"We're not helping them pick out classes," Marks said. "We're helping them pick out a life."

For more information on CARE, call 575-6692 or go online to www.myspace.com/mjccare.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.