Sometimes all you can do is shake your head when you hear what people go through in this life. I'm not even talking about extraordinary circumstances, either. I don't mean surviving wars or train wrecks, climbing mountains or traversing deserts. I just mean the tough, daily grind of the poor — trying to make ends meet, to keep your stomach from growling, to keep your eye on a dream while the world seems to collapse around you.
Twenty-one-year-old Jeané Baker managed to do this. In a few days, she'll finish a summer class at Towson University that will allow her to complete her undergraduate degree and get a diploma in December. In and of itself, that's not a huge deal; thousands of kids have managed to graduate from Towson over the years.
But I shook my head a little when I heard the back story — at least the parts Jeané felt comfortable telling.
"Both my parents were incarcerated my senior year at City College," she said at one point during our chats last week.
Baker's father has been in prison for a long time, she says, and in 2008 and 2009, her mother got arrested for violating conditions of probation and went away for a few months, too. That left Baker to be the main caregiver for her 9-year-old sister, Tori. Her maternal grandmother helped, but it was Baker who did the heavy household lifting each morning.
"I got my sister dressed and to school each day," she says, "and my grandmother would pick her up because I was working after school."
With both parents away, there was no household income. Baker, who already had one job, took another. She took the bus from West Baltimore to work in retail, at a girls clothing store in Towson Town Center, and she had a second part-time job at a nonprofit, setting up summer programs for teenagers — the kind of programs she, of course, had no time for.
Later in 2009, she worked at McDonald's.
I should mention here that Baker managed to keep her grades up at City College. She carried a 3.35 grade point average through her senior year.
"Most times I would get to school and be so drained and fall asleep in class from working the night before," she wrote in an application for a Baltimore Community Foundation scholarship. "After a while it seemed like things were just getting worse. I was able to get bills paid on time, but then I had to worry about paying my mother's lawyer. I had a lot of help from my grandmother, whom we lived with, but she was a retiree working at Target and not really getting any hours so she could only help so much."
Jonnie-Kay McLean read the application and realized that Baker was just the kind of girl she wanted to help.
A couple of years earlier, McLean and her husband, Norman Morrison, had established a college scholarship fund through the BCF. Baker was one of the applicants in 2009.
McLean, retired after 40 years as a teacher, wanted to help girls pay for a college education, and she had her eye open for the qualities that a university admissions officer might miss.
"I am a blue-collar girl from a blue-collar family," she says. "I was looking for the girl who might not have the best grades, but has shown some leadership."
In McLean's book, working to support your family is leadership; taking care of a little sister is leadership. Give a kid a chance — so they don't have to worry about tuition or accumulating a lot of debt while they're in college — and the grades will follow; they have a better shot at completing their degrees.
"More than a few times I was ready to throw in the towel and just drop out and get a full-time job," Baker says.
She applied to out-of-state colleges and, though accepted, knew she could not leave Baltimore because of the fragility of her family situation. In-state tuition was more manageable, but still a hurdle.
McLean, who gets to advise BCF on its selection of a scholarship recipient, suggested Baker. As a result, Baker was awarded four years of grants totaling nearly $20,000. Combined with other help, including federal Pell grants for low-income students, Baker was able to get most of her higher education costs covered. She majored in communications at Towson. After she finishes a summer class this week, she'll be qualified to graduate.
Always working, Baker has a job at a hotel in Baltimore — she was just promoted to manager — but wants a career in public relations. From what I can see, she has the kind of energy and engaging personality that are practically prerequisites for that field.
Her next home-improvement project: making sure her little sister, now 14, gets a good education and graduates from high school, then moves on to become the second young woman from the Baker family to earn a college diploma.