Questions, determination drive single mother to success
She went from a comfortable, middle-class family income to supporting two sons on $11,000 a year. She had to move with her sons from her Orfordville home of 15 years to a tiny duplex in Footville with no full-time job prospects and only a high school diploma.
That’s when Tammy decided she was never going to rely on someone else for her family’s comfort.
“I just realized for financial stability, I needed to depend on just my income,” she said. “Then if there was someone else in the picture, a partner or something, then that was just an asset.”
Tammy, 42, had help in her climb out of poverty. Her church, family and community members pitched in with financial, emotional and educational support.
But friends say Tammy’s determination and drive have gotten her where she is today.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone that I’ve had as a student that’s been so motivated and willing to help others,” said Kristin Fillhouer, coordinator of Project Ahead, a program through UW-Rock County that helps low-income adults return to school. “She’s taken all of her experiences and really made them a positive thing.”
Many of those experiences weren’t positive at the time.
When her second marriage ended in 2002, Tammy was working part-time jobs at Parkview High School and Footville Church of Christ, and she owned a small business raising butterflies for weddings and education.
But the jobs weren’t enough to support her and her sons. She gave up the butterfly business and enrolled at Blackhawk Technical College that summer.
She also applied for food and energy assistance.
“It was a hard thing to, um, swallow your pride, and my mom was the one that finally convinced me to apply for energy assistance and go and apply for food stamps,” Tammy said, choking back tears. “The two part-time jobs, they were paying my minimum bills, but tennis shoes, when they cost $80, and groceries … you know how it goes.”
Tammy learned to take advantage of her resources. She compiled binders full of information about financial aid to pay for school. She scoured the Internet and applied for every scholarship she could find, from an American Association for University Women award to tuition assistance from Mercy Health System, where she found part-time work while attending school.
She also participated in Community Action’s Skills Enhancement Program, which helps adults going to school pay for books, day care, uniforms and other expenses. It serves about 40 families a year and increases participants’ salaries by an average of $12,000 a year, said Lisa Furseth, Community Action’s executive director.
The program helped Tammy pay the hundreds of dollars a semester for textbooks at Blackhawk Tech, she said.
Tammy faced plenty of obstacles along the way. She injured her back in January 2005 and had to stay off her feet for five months. She also battled a weight problem and lost 72 pounds in the last few years through Weight Watchers and the Mercy Healthy Image Weight Management Program.
Through it all—work, health problems and caring for her children—Tammy kept taking classes. She earned an associate degree in supervisory management from BTC in 2006 and a bachelor’s degree in human services this spring through Upper Iowa University.
“I think she’s amazing,” said Tammy’s mother, Diane Stafford. “In some ways, she’s a lot stronger than I am. To have two teenage sons, and to go back to school, and to re-educate herself, I think is just amazing.”
Today, Tammy works full-time for Mercy Healthline. She plans to take a year off from school before returning for a master’s degree in counseling.
Her sons are doing well, too. Jake, 19, will start his sophomore year at UW-Parkside in the fall, and 15-year-old Josh is an honor student at Parkview High School.
Tammy wants to help others like her. She has started a counseling service, Never 2 Late, which she hopes to turn into a nonprofit to help people find resources to go back to school or start businesses.
She won’t charge students or parents, but she hopes to find sponsors such as local businesses that would invite her to give seminars, she said.
“I don’t feel comfortable charging students or their parents for this information because of the simple fact that I’ve been in that position of being a student and being a parent and not understanding the financial aid process,” she said.
People can learn from Tammy’s example just as much as from her knowledge, said Kerri Parker, executive director of YWCA Rock County and a mentor to Tammy.
“People can take away from her experience, from her story: Don’t be afraid to dream,” she said. “Because dreaming is what got her to ask the questions, and those questions are what set her on the path to the success that she’s had so far and the success I have no doubt she will continue to have.”
For more information about Never 2 Late, a counseling service offered by Tammy Stafford-Bartelt for people looking for financial aid for school or training, e-mail email@example.com.