Teachers share personal stories about poverty
By Sarah Campbell
KANNAPOLIS —Belinda Rojo and Yachannah Galloway know what it’s like to be poor.
Both women grew up in families that relied on food stamps to get by. Most of their clothing came from thrift stores. They missed out on school field trips and holidays.
But they also have something else in common: They’re teachers in the Kannapolis City school district.
And both women turned to education to break out of the poverty of their youth.
Rojo became the first person in her family to graduate from high school. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Galloway, the oldest of six children, graduated from East Tennessee State University and received her master’s degree from UNC-Charlotte
Rojo thinks back
Rojo remembers constantly going to the bathroom in elementary and middle school. She didn’t have a bladder condition; she was going there to cry.
“I was made fun of a lot because of my clothes,” she said recently. “I always wore sandals because I was embarrassed to ask my mom to buy me new tennis shoes, because the last pair I had came from Family Dollar and fell apart.”
Although the family typically shopped at thrift stores, they went to K-mart every summer to pick out new back-to-school outfits. Rojo and her sister, Connie, were each allowed to put three outfits on layaway.
Rojo said her mother always had a job, but without a high school diploma, it was difficult to move past minimum wage.
“My mom worked extremely hard to get us what we got,” she said. “Sometimes she even had a second job on the weekends working at fast food restaurants like KFC and Taco Bell.”
And after a while, Rojo’s mother decided to get her GED. After three failed attempts, she got a tutor and passed.
Earning her GED helped her land a job making $11 an hour.
That’s when Rojo realized education was the key to climbing out of poverty.
And when she got pregnant her junior year at A.L. Brown High School and found herself standing in line waiting to apply for government assistance, she knew things had to change.
“My mom had me when she was a teen, so it felt like everything was happening all over again,” she said.
From that point on, Rojo pledged to make good grades because she didn’t want her son Brian to grow up in poverty.
“I knew the only way things were going to get better was by going to school,” she said.
Rojo was almost a straight-A student her senior year.
“I was one point away from making all As,” she said. “I wanted to be able to tell Brian one day, “Look how well I did in school while I was taking care of you.’ ”
Galloway said her family spent time living in abandoned warehouses in Brooklyn before they moved to Tennessee.
“There were mice and rats that lived in the buildings,” she said. “I remember one day I was going to put my shoes on to go out in the mud yard and I kept trying to push my foot in the shoe, I kept pushing and pushing and then I saw a mouse in my shoe.”
Sometimes the family only had oatmeal or grits to eat for dinner. Galloway and her siblings didn’t receive any Christmas presents until she was 11 years old.
But she says she didn’t realize how tough the family had it until she was in high school on the verge of adulthood.
“As a child, you don’t see it as bad; you see it as normal,” she said. “But then you start to learn that it’s not normal.”
Things began to turn around for the family when they started attending church.
Her mother decided to go back to school to become a nurse. She struggled to earn the degree, falling behind on her work because of her responsibilities at home.
“She never gave up. She would go out and get someone to help her,” Galloway said. “When she finally did it, I was like ‘Wow, we can do that too.’ ”
College wasn’t a question in Galloway’s household. Her mother expected all six children to go.
“I felt like my mom instilled in me that failure is not an option, and giving up is not an option, and going to college after high school is automatic,” she said.
Galloway started focusing on her school work more and got involved in the church choir.
“I realized that I didn’t have to be a product of my environment,” she said. “After you see good things, you realize you don’t have to stay in that situation.”
When Rojo married her husband, Jose Luis, she made it clear that she wanted to go to college, finish in four years and get a job as a teacher.
“He supported me 100 percent,” she said. “Sometimes I felt like I was in high school getting talked to by my father, because if I missed class for being sick, he was like, ‘Are you really that sick?’ ”
Rojo finished her degree in May and landed a job teaching U.S. History at A.L. Brown.
With two incomes, her family could afford to buy a house in Kannapolis. But Rojo didn’t want to forget her roots, so they live just outside the trailer park where she grew up.
Galloway said once her mother landed a nursing job, the family gradually started moving into nicer homes.
“When we first moved to Tennessee, all seven of us lived in a two-bedroom house, but I think that made us stronger as a sibling group,” she said. “We learned to appreciate the little things.”
Next, the family moved to a three-bedroom house. Their final stop was a four-bedroom house. They no longer relied on food stamps and were able to buy another car.
Galloway said all her siblings got jobs as teenagers and worked to support the family.
“Even though she had a nursing degree, we all helped out,” Galloway said.
But before the family started doing better, Galloway said, people would judge them.
“I felt like people misunderstood my mother and us,” she said.
Galloway said people wondered why her mother decided to have six children despite being poor.
“She’s a very nurturing person, so she wanted a big family to take care of and love,” she said.
Passing it on
Both women wanted to be teachers so they could help their students tap into their potential.
“I feel like if kids can see there is something else out there for them, they are motivated,” Galloway said.
As someone who had poor teachers growing up, Galloway wanted to make sure other students didn’t face the same struggles she did. She said being multi-racial with a unique first name made her a target for bullying.
“I feel like now I can recognize what my students are going through,” she said.
Galloway said as a kindergarten teacher at Woodrow Wilson Elementary, she nurtures her students, letting them know it’s OK to be different.
“I’m a hugger,” she said. “I’m also an encourager. I’m always saying, ‘Oh my goodness, look what you have done. I’m so proud of you.’ ”
Rojo said she reaches out to her students by letting them know the consequences of bad grades and misbehavior.
“Some kids think it’s funny if they are failing,” she said. “I tell them it’s not funny. It’s not funny being a grownup and having to live at home with your mother. It’s not funny having kids and not being able to buy clothes for them. It’s not funny having to stand in line at Social Services.”
Rojo shares her story with students in hopes that they will understand the value of education.
And she gets frustrated when people don’t see the value of going to college, despite living in poverty.
“If you grew up in that situation why would you not want to change it?” she said. “No one likes living like that.”
Rojo also stresses education to her 4-year-old son.
“Reading is so important for kids to do well in school, period,” she said. “I’m not a good reader, so I make sure I read to Brian all the time.
“As much as I don’t like reading, he needs to know that it’s fun.”
And Rojo encourages him to dream.
“I tell him he can be a doctor, lawyer or even president,” she said. “I let him know he can be whatever he wants.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.