- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Manuela Roberts came to Florida State College at Jacksonville reading at a second-grade level.

The friendly, open student now jokes that, since enrolling at FSCJ in 1998, she has become “one of their special kids.”

She is 45.

It took her years of GED tutoring at FSCJ to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma. Her mentors wouldn’t let her quit. Even when she came to class high, they told her to go home and come back another day.

After she passed all her GED subject tests, they again told her not to quit, to go for a college degree. Her ambition to become a drug rehab counselor grew.

Recently she enrolled in FSCJ’s new Human Services bachelor’s degree program. She hopes to graduate in a year or two.

Meanwhile, she tutors part-time, helping more than 200 students a month in FSCJ. As she leaned on her mentors, her students now lean on her, some calling her Momma Byrd or Ms. Monnie.

She says her story of overcoming childhood trauma and a young life of mistakes shows it’s not too late for education to save a person.

Manuela is the daughter of a nurse and a shipyard worker who physically fought when she was little.

“I saw a lot of violence in the family,” she said. “That probably contributed to some things.”

She was diagnosed as clinically depressed in elementary school.

After her parents separated, she bounced between the two, living in different parts of the city, switching schools nearly every year. By ninth grade, she had been in eight different Duval schools, was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and placed in special classes.

She dropped out of Forrest High her sophomore year. She doesn’t blame the school district; she blamed her “life issues.”

“I was one of those students they had just pushed along,” she said.

“I was really behind … They probably could have helped me. However, I was just done. When you’re a kid and you’re constantly hearing that you’re different and you have this disability and you’re not like other kids, that’s a strong pill to take.”

She first ran away from home at age 15. She hung out with kids in trouble and eventually became addicted to crack.

At a rehab center she got clean and stayed clean for two years. The staff helped her with reading, telling her to read Alcoholics Anonymous materials, but she rebelled, and read the Bible and used a dictionary.

She remembers one day calling her mom to say she finally understood a Bible passage.

“It was the first time that words on a page spoke to me,” she recalled.

“I don’t know what scripture it was. I can’t tell you what it said. But that thing inspired me. Mom said, “Monnie, do you realize you’re reading?’ She was shocked … her baby girl was reading.”

Roberts was 29 years old.

She returned to FSCJ, where she first enrolled in 1998, to get her GED.

“There was something in me that felt like I was better than what I was doing,” she said.

She worked hard even as she relapsed into drug abuse. Her teacher didn’t kick her out of the program, she said; he told her to come back when she had “calmed down.”

She has been clean since 2003. She earned her GED in 2007 and enrolled in college courses, where other instructors and tutors helped her with writing, grammar, and research skills, she said. Some, she said, she followed around “like a puppy dog,” asking questions.

“Those are the people that pushed me, told me I could be something better than I thought I could be,” she said. “Those are the people who told me I could achieve my goals and gave me hope.”

She got A’s and B’s on such classes as Algebra, Statistics, Biology, Anatomy, and Physiology. In 2010 she earned an associate’s degree in general education with a concentration on Psychology.

FSCJ hired her as a part-time tutor a few months later.

She remains close to her mother and her father, crediting them and all her teachers, tutors and advisors with helping her to her next career step into alcohol and drug rehab counseling. She hopes to graduate with a bachelor’s in 2016.

“Those people who pushed me and encouraged me and mentored me, I only give (to other students) what was given to me,” she said.


Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, https://www.jacksonville.com

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