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Mother of 2 embraces college as way off welfare


Terri Koontz came from a broken home, had a traumatic four-month marriage and is the mother of two children born out of wedlock.

In October 1990, she became one of 4 million single parents on welfare, and now she collects more than $24,000 a year in cash and kind from the welfare system.

But Ms. Koontz, 27, has found and embraced education the way some people find and embrace God. Her devotion has paid off in a full scholarship to Towson State University -- and a way off welfare.

She earned the TSU Presidential Scholarship for transfer students by will and deed. She will carry majors in computer science and math and take 18 to 21 credits a semester for the two years it will take for a degree.

"I hate the 'welfare mother' label, and I will get off of welfare," she said.

Indeed, she almost has an associate of arts degree, had pneumonia twice and sore legs from biking her sons, now 2 and 5, to a baby sitter and herself to Essex Community College for nearly two years.

The daily round trip was 13 miles from her apartment in the Villages of Tall Trees, a low-income apartment complex in Essex.

"I just put the kids in a little trailer, hooked it to my bike and took off," she said. "I couldn't afford to take the bus."

Essex administrators, concerned about her frequent illnesses, gave her a bus pass in December. In return, she gave them a tour de force performance in the classroom with a 3.93 grade point average, a place on the dean's list and membership in the honors program.

"We became aware of the bike, and her problems, and the business management faculty pitched together to buy her a bus pass through May," said Rae Rosenthal, coordinator of the Essex honors program. The pass cost $42 a month.

The honors program committee, made up of faculty and students, also bought toys and clothing for the family at Christmas.

"We thought her effort and her record -- her transcript speaks for itself -- should be recognized," Ms. Rosenthal said.

'Creative student'

Economics professor Kostis Papadantonakis, Ms. Koontz' adviser, said he was caught by her determination and academic excellence.

"She was a creative student," he said. "She could read rather dense economic material and write very perceptively about it."

It's been a long and difficult way from there to here, and Terri Koontz talks about her past as coolly as she discusses her future.

Her parents divorced when she was 7. She and her younger sister were in joint custody but spent most of their time with their father, a postal worker, in a three-bedroom rowhouse in North Baltimore.

"I realize now that my father sheltered me. I was spoiled. I couldn't cook or keep house. I didn't know about money, except that it was to be spent. I thought my father would always be there to pay the bills."

Ms. Koontz received her early education in Lutheran schools and attended Loch Raven High School for a year, graduating in 1985.

"But I didn't care anything about school or grades," she said. "I just wanted to be a party girl."

At 19, she married an alcoholic and a drug user, a match that lasted from May to September.

"I doubt that he knows even now that we're divorced," she said. "I just wanted to get out of the house. I would have married a lamp post."

Her only choice after the breakup was to return to her father's house and go to work.

"I had 13 jobs in four years," she said. "The best one was as a phone operator for a messenger service at $7 an hour. I was fired."

She eventually met "Mr. Right," whom she declines to identify, lived with him and, in 1989, had a baby. Fifteen months later, "Mr. Right" moved out and she went on welfare.

"He had to leave or I wouldn't have qualified for welfare," she said. "My father had been helping me out some financially, but one day he said, 'That's it' and withdrew his support. He is very religious, and when I had my son out of wedlock, he stopped talking to me."

She never had wanted children, and then she had two.

"Both children were the result of birth control failures," she said. "My social worker talked me out of having an abortion the second time, and now, of course, I'm happy she did."

At age 25, it came to her that she was going nowhere, and she hated the stigma of being on welfare. She applied for and won a federal Pell grant worth $2,300, entered Essex and began her odyssey of biking, classes, parenting and study.

Now she is taking a class in the morning at TSU, volunteering for three hours in the computer laboratory to protect baby-sitting fees Social Services is paying and taking pre-calculus math three nights a week at Essex to finish up her associate of arts degree work by August.

The father of her sons plays an active part in his children's lives, she said, and pays $42 a week in child support when he's working.

Ms. Koontz is not reluctant to discuss her welfare income.

She gets $3,936 annually from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, $3,240 in food stamps, $4,692 in Section 8 housing assistance, Medicaid valued at $4,380, and baby-sitting fees of about $7,800, which might be reduced somewhat by holidays and vacations. These fees go directly to the baby-sitter. The total is $24,048.

That's not all, because Ms. Koontz has become expert at finding money. "I just read bulletin boards and pay attention," she said.

She gets $312 a year from the state fuel assistance program, a Maryland state scholarship award worth $900 annually, $740 a year in a federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity grant and $20 toward utilities each month. She also has a $500 loan from Ruritan National.

Then there is the TSU scholarship, valued at $3,377 annually, and the $2,300 Pell grant, which has to be renewed yearly. Pell money goes to the school for books, supplies and transportation. She gets the excess.

"Welfare is supposed to be a second chance, and I'm taking it," Ms. Koontz said, "but I don't like it. I'm going to prove that I'm worth it."

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