- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

ANDERSON, Ind. (AP) - At age 17, Heather Cardenas had reached the breaking point.

After another argument with her alcoholic mother in which the two nearly came to blows, she decided to leave.

“I didn’t want to be around that anymore. I needed to get out,” Cardenas said.

Right then.

“I had nothing but the clothes on my back and one other outfit.” She didn’t even have any identification because her mother had taken it all.

Cardenas hid out with friends in the Kentucky city where she lived until her 18th birthday.

Later she followed friends to Anderson, began waitressing at a local restaurant, became involved with a man and got pregnant.

He was abusive, and Cardenas once again had to escape,” she said.

“I thought maybe this is what a relationship is supposed to be,” she said.

It wasn’t, of course, and eventually she found a good man and had two more children.

By early 2013, Cardenas was a stay-at-home mom with three children when she began seeing fliers around Anderson about a new school for adults. It was The Excel Center.

Cardenas had not yet graduated from high school when she fled Kentucky years earlier, but eventually earning that degree was something that was on her mind.

Cardenas was curious and, with support from her husband, she visited The Excel Center and got more information. A significant barrier at the time was child care.

“When I found out The Excel Center has a free drop-in center, I was sold,” Cardenas said.

It took just five months for Cardenas to earn the necessary credits to graduate with technical honors. She also earned a certification in early childhood education and was valedictorian of her class.

After graduating, she won a scholarship and began studying at Ivy Tech Community College. In May, Cardenas graduated with an associate degree in human services.

Since January, however, she’s been back at The Excel Center working as the administrative assistant for Nurse-Family Partnership Northeast Region, which has offices at The Excel Center. She became familiar with the program while working as an intern life coach last fall.

The job is a perfect fit.

“I want to help people,” she said.

As administrative assistant, Cardenas said, her job is to coordinate outreach events to search for clients and handle intake and handle all administrative matters for the nursing team.

She’s especially happy about working for The Excel Center because she knows the kind of struggles the students have.

“Having been an Excel student, I can relate to what students are facing,” Cardenas said. “What I didn’t expect was how much I’d care and get attached to those I’m helping. My internship was valuable because it showed me that the best way I can contribute is to help those who are directly helping others.”

Eventually, Cardenas hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work and perhaps an advanced degree.

The Excel Center will have its spring graduation exercise on Friday.

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Source: The (Anderson) Herald-Bulletin, http://bit.ly/1raldJ1

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Information from: The Herald Bulletin, http://www.theheraldbulletin.com

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