Ronnie Polaneczky: She majored in persistence to earn college degree

Posted: May 13, 2010

MEDIA STORIES abound about college graduates who trumped tough odds to get their degrees.

I usually don't write them. I can never decide what makes one grad's story more worthy than another's, when they're all deserving of the spotlight.

When I heard about Mareeda Perry, who will graduate Sunday from La Salle University with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, I broke my rule and gave her a call.

By the middle of that first conversation, I knew I had to write about this indomitable young woman, whose chaotic upbringing should have made her a statistic by now.

Her mom, who had eight kids by four men, often left her children alone while she went off to "find herself." She died when Mareeda, now 24, was just 18.

Mareeda's dad, tortured by mental illness, floats in and out of Mareeda's life like a ghost.

And many in her huge, extended family have struggled with poverty, unwed pregnancy and incarceration.

How, then, has Mareeda broken free of the web that might have ensnared her by now?

How did she come to be living on her own, baby-free and self-supporting, employed at a place where she's so highly regarded, she keeps getting promoted?

How did she hold down a second and third job while studying for her bachelor's degree?

And where is the bitterness you'd expect over the losses she has endured?

When I finally meet Mareeda face to face, she leaps out of her chair and hugs me. Which seems appropriate, given how I'd gotten choked up by her story during our initial phone chat.

"It surprises me that people get emotional when they hear my story," Mareeda says, as we settle into her office at La Salle University's Nonprofit Center, which provides organizational support to nonprofit groups. Mareeda manages the center's educational programs. "It's just my life, so it's no big deal."

You be the judge.

Mareeda's mom dropped out of high school to have a baby. By the time she was 22, she had three children by two men.

She fell in love with Mareeda's dad, whom Mareeda describes as a gentle soul who suffered a mental breakdown when Mareeda's mom left him five years later. By then, the couple had four kids together, including Mareeda and her twin, Lasheeda.

"It was like he lost everything," says Mareeda. "He fell apart. He was never the same after that."

Mareeda's mom had another child with a new boyfriend, and often left her brood in the care of others. Indeed, Mareeda says she has few memories of her mother in those early years.

When Mareeda was 8, the family moved to a new home in Bristol, where chaos reigned. Crack was dealt in front of her eyes, guns were ever-present and her mom's boyfriend brought abuse to the home.

Says Mareeda: "I was exposed to things a child's ears should not hear, eyes should not see and things my hands should never have touched."

When the family fled to Philly, they became nomads, moving seven times in two years; Mareeda attended four elementary and three middle schools.

"Eventually, I stopped making new friends because I knew we'd only move again," she says.

Mareeda blossomed at Frankford High School's business academy, earning placement as a part-time administrative assistant at the Pennsylvania Humanities Council. She also worked at Burger King, while holding down classes at Frankford.

"I was looking forward to the prom and graduation," she says.

But then her mom got sick with a terminal illness Mareeda prefers not to name, out of deference to her mother, who was very private about her health.

"All my excitement was wiped out," says Mareeda, who, with a hospice worker named Charlene "Miss Char" Slobodinsky, cared for her mom. "My mother became dependent on me. I was the go-to person for everything. I had to stop school for a while."

A few weeks before her mom died, Mareeda broke down.

"I was so depressed and stressed-out, the only thing I could do was cry to my creator for help," says Mareeda.

"I asked God to rid me of my anger. I asked for strength, patience, guidance and to stop my mother's suffering. The next day when I awoke, I felt peace. My hopelessness was gone."

Most of all, she says, her anger toward her mom was washed away by the tears they'd cry together over the last few days of her mother's life. 

After graduation, Mareeda kept working two jobs while attending CCP, but with one semester left toward her associate's degree, she lost her financial aid.

"I had to find money to finish my degree," she says. "It was the only way I'd have a better life."

She landed a third part-time job at La Salle's Nonprofit Center and went full time six months later. The promotion let her take nine credits at La Salle per semester, for free.

"I cried!" she said.

She attended classes at night and during lunch breaks, and stayed late at work to make up missed time. She'd stumble off the bus at night, exhausted.

"I'd tell myself, 'You are not giving up,' " says Mareeda.

It helped that she had a cheering section, especially her oldest sibling, Sharika Perry, who Mareeda calls "the heart of the family"; Miss Char, who has remained close; and the godmother-like co-workers at the Nonprofit Center.

"We love Mareeda," says Mareeda's boss, Laura Otten. "She has a beautiful spirit. And what a work ethic! She has never slacked. We dread the day she ever leaves us."  

That day won't be soon, but it's coming. Mareeda plans to get her master's degree in social work to help those who are where she once was.

"Helping people is my passion," says Mareeda, who finds time to work Sundays at Mercy Hospice, a women's shelter,  and to volunteer at ActionAIDS, an organization close to her heart.

Meantime, she is heading to Atlantic City for a few days of fun before she tosses her cap in the air this Sunday.

If anyone deserves the respite, this amazing young woman does.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky. Read Ronnie's blog at http://go.philly.com/ ronnieblog.

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