published Sunday, May 27th, 2012

Kimmy's hope: A two-time dropout on a downward spiral gets a chance at salvation

Kimmy Harriod, 18, center, celebrates with classmates at graduation.
Kimmy Harriod, 18, center, celebrates with classmates at graduation.
Photo by Dan Henry.

TRENTON, Ga. -- Kimmy Harriod stood alone in court the day they took her baby away.

She had received a summons, but her mom can't read much, Kimmy couldn't translate the legal jargon and they couldn't afford an attorney.

They had no idea Kimmy's then 18-month-old daughter would go home with the father that September day because of the unsafe conditions at her family's single-wide trailer in Wildwood, Ga.

As long as she had her baby, Kimmy had something to hold on to. But with her purpose stripped away, Kimmy sank into depression. On the day she lost final custody, at 17, she dropped out of school for the second time. The grip of poverty seemed to be tightening, pulling her down the same path her parents and siblings had walked.

It was part of the family legacy -- take care of momma, get used to doing without, try to stay out of jail. You want learning? Learn to get by.

"She was at the point in her life where she thought there was nowhere else to go," said Trudy Luken, who worked with Kimmy at Dade County Schools.

But the teen was about to meet someone who would open her eyes.

A stranger who wanted more for the young woman than Kimmy ever wanted for herself.

This could be her salvation. Or another lost opportunity -- maybe the last.

Because you can't save someone who doesn't want to be saved.

•••

Luken had approached Superintendent Shawn Tobin, worried that Dade County wasn't fighting hard enough for some of its students.

More than half of Dade County's students live in poverty. Of them, about 65 percent graduate on time.

Given the loss of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program several years back, officials decided the county would form its own mentorship program to help. It is centered on the superintendent's belief that all kids can be saved and that the school plays a central part in that salvation.

After hearing about the budding program at a PTA meeting, Kim Van Veldhuizen walked into the office looking to get involved. When administrators met her, baby in her arms, they thought she would be a good fit, especially for Kimmy, who had given birth to her baby at 15.

The program would include children of all ages, though Kimmy's situation was viewed as the most urgent.

Kimmy never had someone to take her to the mall, buy her new clothes or help her set up a bank account. Birthdays sometimes came and went with no gifts.

Her father collects and sells scrap metal. Her mom has held several entry-level jobs but is currently unemployed. Her mother would often pull Kimmy out of school to go help her fill out job applications or forms at the doctor's office, because she couldn't read the papers herself.

Administrators had tried to work with Kimmy. They sent a teacher to work with her at home after the baby came. But her mother signed off on the dropout forms both times Kimmy asked -- once after the baby came and once after the baby left.

After standing in her front yard begging her to return her senior year, administrators got Kimmy to school one last time late this fall. But as the days to graduation ticked away, Kimmy said she didn't care about school or her future, still grieving the loss of her daughter. She gets January Nicole every other weekend, but that's not enough.

Educators saw her mentor's arrival as the hand of God. Kim would be a perfect match, someone who could finally help set Kimmy on a new course.

It takes more than just teachers to reach some kids. Some need a real relationship with a caring adult, someone to stand behind them. Relationships like Kim and Kimmy's demonstrate that the determination of others can sometimes be more powerful than self-determination.

Because of the work of Kim and other adults in the school community, Kimmy is now poised to break a cycle of generational poverty, conquer the struggles of teenage motherhood and get more out of life than even she could have imagined.

•••

  • photo
    Kimmy Harriod, 18, holds her 2-year-old daughter January Goodson before lining up for graduation Friday.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

On their first meeting, Kimmy showed up unkempt in a pony tail, blue jeans and a hoodie, her clothes smelling of her parents' cigarettes.

She used one-word responses and kept her head low.

The pressure was to make friends quickly. The superintendent and organizers of the program gathered in a meeting room waited for something to happen.

Kim broke through the nervous introductions.

"I don't know anything about you," she said. "We're not friends yet. But I want to become friends."

Kimmy managed a small smile and a sigh of relief.

The relationship started off slowly.

Kim came by the school twice a week to talk about school and Kimmy's future. At the beginning of the week, they drafted a plan of what Kimmy needed to accomplish. At week's end, Kim came back to see what had gotten done. Kimmy often delivered.

The goal was always to get Kimmy's daughter back in her custody. They worked to get Kimmy organized so she could catch up in school. Kimmy realized she needed a job, had to attend college or technical school and must get out of her parents' trailer.

In December, Kim took Kimmy shopping for clothes with money Kim's church donated. The black coat with faux-fur trim Kimmy picked out was the first winter coat in memory that she hadn't had to share with her father.

Kim found other people at New Salem United Methodist Church to offer Kimmy odd jobs like mowing and cleaning. She fretted over Kimmy's home life, staying in touch on weekends and evenings through phone calls and text messages. Because things in Kimmy's life can change overnight.

Kim and her children prayed for Kimmy at night. They prayed for Kimmy's family, too.

Kimmy would let her guard down, and Kim slowly began to fill in some of the many holes in the girl's life.

In April, six months into their relationship, Kimmy already was realizing all that Kim had done for her.

"She's like my other mother," Kimmy said.

•••

Kimmy sits still as the stylist pulls her straight brown hair through an iron, leaving behind long ringlet curls.

Girls dressed in glitzy gowns and striking makeup walk past and cars buzz down Highway 136 outside as mothers and daughters rush around town to get ready for the prom.

Leaning against a partition wall, Kim can't help but shower Kimmy in compliments.

"Oh my gosh, your profile is beautiful. They're like sculpted curls."

Kimmy doesn't respond, but holds her head a little higher, letting a rare sense of self-confidence emerge.

The shiny French manicure makes it difficult to maneuver on her phone as she tries to pull up a picture of her dream hair-do. Later, the high heels will wobble at her first few steps.

"This is the day I can call you pretty and you can't say anything," Kim says.

Once the stylist has the four silver decorative pins fastened in Kimmy's bun, she steps back and pauses to examine her work.

"Oh my gosh, you look gorgeous," Kim interjects.

"OK, you can stop now," Kimmy says, rolling her eyes and letting a grin spread across her face.

Kim had wanted the day to be perfect for Kimmy.

She made appointments for Kimmy's hair and nails. She ordered the boutonniere and corsage. She convinced Logan's Roadhouse to donate dinner. Her mother-in-law took pictures. She even found Kimmy a date.

Leaning her head against the wall, Kim gazes into the mirror at Kimmy and sees two transformations.

One has taken hours and will be complete by prom time.

The other is counted in fears and joy, in prayers and hopes.

It isn't over yet.

•••

Kim, 42, believes she is called by God to work with troubled kids, whether through church youth groups or more intense work like that with Kimmy.

Kim's high school years in Miami were defined by rebellion -- alcohol, drugs, skipping school. She credits her turnaround to the outstretched hand of caring adults in her life and becoming a saved Christian.

"I feel like the hand of God is really working in Kimmy's life," she said. "People are surrounding her to teach her things she didn't get."

Kim had worked as a paralegal and served several years in military intelligence as a linguist.

Her husband works as a Chattanooga firefighter and builds houses on the side. Together, they and their three children live in a three-bedroom cottage in the woods of Lookout Mountain, Ga.

To Kimmy, their home was a mansion -- almost unimaginable for someone like her.

•••

Kim and Kimmy generally focused on simple lessons, things parents often teach their kin. How to make a budget. How to get a driver's license.

Using her paralegal background, Kim helped Kimmy navigate the court system when Kimmy was required to pay child support to January's father. She made sure Kimmy had nice clothes for her appearance in front of the judge. Kimmy had been ordered to pay $264 a month, but with Kim and others standing beside her, the judge allowed her to finish school before owing anything.

Kim helped her look for scholarships and weigh work and college opportunities.

She created a file with important documents, like Kimmy's birth certificate.

Kim told her she had to get her senior portrait taken. And she had to smile, too.

When Kimmy got sick at school and no one came to get her, Kim picked her up and drove her home.

There were life lessons in there, too.

Before prom, Kim gave Kimmy a lecture about boys, parties and being careful.

"Call me if anything happens," Kim told her.

And when Kimmy's date left the dance with someone else, Kim talked her through it. She stressed the importance of personal independence. Wasn't it great Kimmy had driven herself there and didn't have to rely on anyone else?

•••

Kim grew to respect Kimmy.

She doesn't get into trouble at school, doesn't hang out with a bad crowd and has had no trouble with the law.

"She's a really good kid that is almost afraid of the bad kids," Kim said.

With a brother and sister behind bars, Kimmy says she has learned from the mistakes of her family.

She gets herself up and ready for school. And educators note that Kimmy is usually where she's supposed to be, doing what she's supposed to be doing.

"Kimmy lets you know she would do better if she knew how," Luken said. "She's got a light in her."

Kimmy doesn't criticize her parents. She won't talk about all the things she missed in her childhood. She's just now showing signs of standing up to her mother, who has relied on her daughter for much.

"She's almost like the adult in that house," Luken said.

During a test Kimmy needed to complete for graduation, her mother tried to get her to skip school to drive her around. But Kimmy said no, that she had to take that test.

"She's just now realizing something more could have been done," Luken said of Kimmy's home life.

Walking with her class is a huge victory for Kimmy, who finished the equivalent of two years of course work this year, working long hours on the computer to catch up. In the winter, she at times sat in a cold car outside of a nearby church to get Internet access to finish her homework.

"She has busted it," said Tobin, the superintendent.

For as hard as Kimmy has worked and as much as she has overcome, she still struggles with realizing her value.

She and others recently met with an official from a vocational rehabilitation program that could help introduce her into the work force. They asked what Kimmy's strengths were.

She couldn't answer.

Others in the room had to pound it into her that she's determined, hard-working and responsible. Look at all you've done, they told her.

"She doesn't realize what a jewel she is," Luken said.

•••

Kimmy used to think a job at Walmart, where her mom had worked, would be good enough. Now, she wants a more stable career, one that can help her provide for her daughter. She wants to go to school, buy insurance and have a small place of her own. A place that can be home for her and her baby.

They hope to find an attorney to help regain custody.

With one more test she needs to finish this summer for her diploma, Kim and Kimmy now have their sights set on work and further education.

Kim hopes the relationship will last for years. She plans to stick around as long as Kimmy will have her, until they realize their big goal.

"I'm with her until she gets that baby back," Kim said.

They're exploring a vocational rehab program, which will help Kimmy transition into the workforce and, they hope, school. Kim thinks Kimmy should do it. The structure and support will be invaluable.

But Kim won't force her. Like everything else, it must be Kimmy's choice.

On Friday evening, Kim wondered what it must have meant for Kimmy to walk across the stage with the rest of her class, to shake the superintendent's hand and to have her picture snapped in her shiny maroon cap and gown.

At one point, Kim and others had tried to brace Kimmy for the possibility she wouldn't graduate this year, wondering if they could convince her to come back for another year.

But Kimmy kept working and surprising them.

"Can you believe this day has come?" Kim said to Kimmy as they hugged after the ceremony.

As the crowd let out of the Dade County High gym, Kim gave Kimmy a Bible from her church, one they give to all their teens who graduate. Kim's gift, the one she's making herself, wasn't quite ready.

She's still working on it.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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