- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2017

YORK, Pa. (AP) - Ginia Moorehead’s daughter, Aniyah Christy, loves school.

Moorehead can tell by the second-grader’s enthusiasm — when she tells her mom she was recognized for a positive behavior, like being respectful, or was the only one to raise her hand for a question in class.

Aniyah, 8, reminds her mother of herself when she was young. She loved school at that age and won a scholarship when she was still in elementary school.

But things changed for her, somewhere around middle school. Life at home was chaotic, and school just didn’t seem that important.

“School began to slowly fade into the background of my life,” Moorehead said.

In late October, Moorehead, now 24, stood before a room full of guidance counselors, social workers and others who work with students. She was the keynote speaker at the Lancaster County Truancy Symposium, helping to shed light on an issue weighing on many in education: why students fade away from school. She nervously, but openly, told them how at, one point, she just stopped going to school. But that wasn’t really the problem.

“Truancy is just a symptom, or at least it was for me,” she told them.

‘Trying to navigate the waters’

Moorehead grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Aberdeen, Maryland, and her mom, raising Moorehead and three brothers and five sisters on her own, was an involved parent. But her mom struggled with addiction.

Her dad lived in Washington, D.C., and was in and out. Her parents fought. There was no structure, no rules. Moorehead lost her drive.

“I didn’t care anymore,” she said.

By freshman year, she was skipping school altogether or showing up around lunchtime.

“Don’t ask me what I was doing,” she said. “Nothing. I don’t know.”

She didn’t have any ambition or drive. No one was there to encourage her or care if she didn’t go to school.

She remembers that her best friend’s dad would take them to McDonald’s. She’d watch them in the front seats and think about how she didn’t have that.

She had to repeat ninth grade three times, eventually ending up in the same class as her younger brother and younger sister. In that last freshman year, Moorehead got pregnant.

That could have been the start of the path she saw play out in the neighborhood around her. Girls there got pregnant, dropped out of school, and found low-income apartments. They didn’t go to college.

There were people who told her she’d ruined her life. She was determined that wasn’t true but knew she had to change it.

“If I don’t fight, who’s going to fight? Who’s going to fight for me or my child?” she said.

She started going back to school, but that doesn’t mean her problems went away. Her family’s apartment flooded, and she bounced from neighbors to hotels.

A month or so after Aniyah was born, Moorehead, 16, moved to York with her boyfriend’s family.

It was a bad year. They were young. It was a big family in a small apartment.

But she had also enrolled at William Penn Senior High, which offered a child care program for students. By then, she should have been a sophomore but was still finishing up freshman credits.

And, she met Miss Barb. Barbara Leonard, at the time, was a social worker at William Penn.

Moorehead started frequenting Leonard’s office. Leonard noticed she’d stay later and later.

“She was just trying to navigate the waters,” Leonard said. “She wanted to go to school. She needed support.”

After about a year, things went south with Moorehead’s boyfriend and she had to leave his house. By that time, her brothers and sisters were in foster care. Her mom was out of rehab but not in a good relationship. Moorehead had nowhere to go. Leonard connected Moorehead with a local foundation, which helped her pay for an apartment for the year.

‘What better way to help the students’

When Moorehead - accustomed to living in tiny apartments packed with family - was scared in the lonely apartment with her young daughter, Leonard visited. Together, they checked every door and window lock so she could sleep well.

That’s the kind of thing that makes Moorehead call Leonard her angel. She was just there when Moorehead needed someone.

One evening, Leonard invited Moorehead to tag along to a countywide meeting on truancy. Local experts and advocates discussed the problem and opened the floor to the audience.

Moorehead, then a junior, was first at the mic.

A star was born, Leonard said. “She realized her voice could be heard.”

Moorehead remembers telling the officials that if they attended a meeting and felt like no one listened, they probably wouldn’t go back. It’s the same with school.

Giving hope to other students

While a sophomore at William Penn, Moorehead started an after-school program for girls called TEEN - Teaching Empowering and Encouraging the New Generation. Leonard helped facilitate it. They met weekly to talk about life, their problems and their goals.

Kids just need someone who is there for them, Moorehead said, like Leonard was for her. It takes someone to build a relationship with a student, and it might take time.

“It’s one of the most significant things you can do,” she told the Lancaster County truancy audience.

After graduating from William Penn in 2011, Moorehead began studying at Penn State York in the human development and family studies program. Her experience with the TEEN program put her on that path, and she also looked up to people she knew in the field.

When she was young, there was a social worker at church who everyone knew and gravitated toward. It was the same with an elementary school librarian. And there was Miss Barb.

Moorehead is on her way to being one of those people, the kind kids look up to and gravitate towards, the source of love and support they need.

Through an internship at Children’s Home of York, she works as a prevention specialist running anti-drug and gambling prevention programs in schools in York City and in the southern part of the county.

In a city school one afternoon, they did an activity about probability. She asked them the probability of one of their classmates going to college.

“A lot of those students in that class did not think someone from their class could go to college,” she said. “I would just say that’s one of the reasons why I do what I do. To give them hope, to give them encouragement.”

Most needy kids in York County aren’t getting pre-k

Leonard remembers Moorehead talking about wanting to open a youth center called “Yes You Can.” Maybe her path has changed a little, but it still centers around that idea of mentoring kids and helping them see what’s out there.

“It’s a real passion she has,” Leonard said. “I always say that to her: Yes, you can.”

Moorehead last month graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Through an internship at Children’s Home of York, she’s been working as a prevention specialist, doing anti-drug and gambling prevention programs in schools around York County. She might continue that work, or eventually pursue her master’s degree.

Some of Ginia’s family members are still struggling to shake the environment she grew up in. At her graduation ceremony, her parents, friends and other family sat in the audience. They helped her daughters Aniyah, now 8, and Alivia Bishop, almost 2, lean over the Pullo Center seats as their mom marched in, dressed in cap and gown.

As Moorehead crossed the stage, her family erupted.

“Love you girl!”

“That’s my sister!”

Moorehead, like other graduates, had 30 seconds at the microphone. She thanked her teachers and family and addressed her daughters.

“This is for you,” she said. “This is the big day we were waiting for.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2iFc1MZ

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Information from: York Daily Record, https://www.ydr.com

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