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Messenger: St. Louis single mom finds two generations of hope in higher education

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Stacy McCarter

Stacy McCarter celebrates after graduating from Misericordia University in May 2022.

Stacy McCarter thought education would help her escape.

Escape the generational poverty she grew up in in the West End neighborhood of St. Louis. Escape the violence that landed her and her kids in a domestic violence shelter when she was married.

“I kept trying to find a way to escape from everything,” McCarter says. “I ran headfirst into school.”

In May, McCarter graduated with a degree in early childhood education from Misericordia University in Dallas, Penn. It’s a private university founded by the Sisters of Mercy. She’s the first person in her family with a college degree. Her road to graduation, a job, and hope for her family, endured many potholes.

As a child, McCarter attended Parkway schools as part of the region’s voluntary transfer program. She dropped out of Parkway North High School before graduating. She eventually joined a job corps program and got her diploma. She tried St. Louis Community College and that didn’t work out.

Obstacles kept getting in the way.

“Life happened,” McCarter says. She thought she had things figured out when she enrolled at Harris-Stowe State University, and got a job working in the day care center at the school, so she could be close to her kids. But the bills, including tuition and the day care fees, proved to be too much again.

“Things were very difficult for me,” she remembers. “I always wanted more but just couldn’t figure it out.”

That’s when the pastor at her church, Maplewood United Methodist Church stepped in. Pastor Kim Shirar had heard of a program in Pennsylvania called the Ruth Matthews Bourger Women With Children Program. It is a unique residential center at Miseracordia University that helps single mothers get a college degree.

McCarter didn’t want to leave St. Louis. It was a place she never heard of, in a rural area in a state far away. But she prayed. She looked for signs. She took the plunge.

“We didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

Students pay tuition at the school, though they can qualify for financial aid. The program pays for housing and utilities, childcare, food stipends, and even extra-curricular activities for the children.

McCarter describes each of her children by their unique gifts.

Sophia, 11, is the writer.

Allen, 8, is the genius. “We call him preacher, lawyer, doctor.”

Elijah, 6, is the athlete.

They are her pride and joy, and now, she says, because she has a college degree, they have a future. That’s how the Women With Children program looks at itself, says its director, Katherine Pohlidal. It’s not just about saving one generation, but two.

“It is a sustainable way of lifting families out of poverty, two generations at a time,” Pohlidal says. The program, supported with donations, is expanding, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, recently cited it in his annual address to the legislature, suggesting the state’s public universities should consider adding such programs. The program at Misericordia is one of eight similar programs in the country, but the only one that completely covers the cost of housing. Every program graduate, Pohlidal says, moves on to a professional career. Some of the program’s first graduates from its founding in 2000, now have children who are graduating from college.

McCarter has been hired as a special education teacher in the Wilkes-Barre public schools. She misses St. Louis, and thinks about coming back, but for now, she’s on the path she believes God intended for her.

“We single mothers are significant. Having our education increases our ability and our knowledge,” she says. “I think about all the women whose day care bills are out of control and they can’t afford to stay in school. I just want them to have a chance. I pray that Missouri wakes up and finds a way to pilot programs like this.”

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