an great example of what happens when you remove excuses!!!

June 6th, 2009

TheThinkMovement.com by j. sakiya sandifer

by Ralph R. Ortega /The Star-Ledger

NEWARK — Homeless and without a job, Toni Clark saved her unemployment checks only for the barest of essentials — meals, and her college education.

On Friday, Clark was one of almost 1,100 graduates at the largest commencement in Essex County College’s 40-year history. While many of her classmates faced down their own adversity, Clark’s entire college career was completed without having a place to sleep at night.

“I lost my apartment and my job, and I didn’t want to stay with family, so I went on the street, but God put me right in school,” she said Friday, moments after the ceremony at the Prudential Center in Newark.

The path to higher education was rocky for the 50-year-old Clark, who earned her degree without books, a computer or a proper place to study. She walked almost everywhere she went, often pushing a shopping cart and dragging along luggage.

“It’s been hard. I was staying in (Newark) Penn Station, the airport,” Clark said. “But you know, I was taking care of business and everything, but I just didn’t have a home.”

Officials said the college had no idea Clark was homeless while she was attending classes.

At one point before she completed her degree, the college did have issues with her showing up to school with luggage, and denied her access to the computer lab and library, Clark said. Undeterred, she down-sized to one small bag. Clark said she finished her course work with a grade point average of about 2.77.

Clark’s descent into homelessness was as sudden as it was painful.

Soon after she was laid off from her job as a certified nursing assistant, she lost her East Orange apartment in December 2007.

Clark, a divorcee, left her two sons, now ages 20 and 21, with family, then fended for herself on the streets of Newark.

“I could have stayed with family, but I didn’t want to do that,” Clark said. “I wanted to do it on my terms. I didn’t want to have to depend on nobody else.”

Most of Clark’s belongings went into a storage facility. But when the $400 monthly cost went unpaid, precious keepsakes such as baby pictures were lost when the business sold many of the items.

While on the street, Clark said, she also bore the pain of losing an uncle and two aunts to cancer, and a niece to a heart attack. All of the deaths came within 13 months. Family members said the heartache likely prolonged Clark’s homelessness.

“She couldn’t take it. We would ask her to come home, but she just wouldn’t be with us,” said her mother, Florence Hargrove, 70.

A regular Bible reader, Clark said it was during a moment of spiritual connection that she realized she couldn’t waste time. She said she became determined to plan for the future.

“God wanted me to go to school,” she said.

Friday’s graduation was a joyous moment for her family for more than one reason. On Thursday, Clark had agreed to come in off the streets and move in with relatives in East Orange.

As her sisters, Renee Hargrove and Georgette Bradshaw, wiped away tears at the commencement, they said they didn’t know what motivated Clark to finally come off the streets.

“She came back to my place, she knocked on the door, and said she was ready to come home,” Hargrove said.

With the Prudential Center’s main arena awash in green robes and gold tassels marching in single file to get their diplomas, her family scanned the crowd anxiously for Clark.

“I just saw her walk past. I’m just so proud of her,” said Bradshaw after spotting Clark and other graduates on the floor of the arena.

Clark had a white, hooded sweatshirt slightly visible under her graduation garb. White clothes were her trademark while attending the college, earning her the nickname, “Lady in White.”

Among her fellow graduates was Jozun Yasumura, a 38-year-old Brazilian from Newark’s Ironbound, who enrolled in the college to learn English after coming to the United States six years ago. Yasumura graduated as valedictorian with a 4.0 average.

“Today, impossible dream becomes a reality!” he cried out during his commencement speech.

The words seemed tailored for Clark, although she played down her accomplishment.

“It is an amazing story, but people go through harder things,” she said. “I’m proud of what I did, believe me. But, I’m no more special than anyone else.”

College President A. Zachary Yamba told graduates in his final commencement speech before retirement that they were entering an uncertain world, during troubled times.

“Recession, joblessness, poverty, ignorance, violence, global warming, war, famine – all these plague the world, and much of it right here in Newark,” said Yamba.

Clark, having already experienced the depths of hardship, all while a college student, said she plans to stay with her family and spend time with her sons. She said she also was hopeful of getting a job, and would seek a bachelor’s degree in education at a four-year school.

She acknowledged her story could inspire others.

“If I can do it homeless, anybody can do it who has a home,” she said

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