ELIZABETH – Marion Simmons never listened to criticism, only advice. When the former resident of a group home and at-risk youth this past weekend graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, she recalled all those who told her she would never achieve that goal.
Simmons would be forgiven a twinge of spite as she donned her cap and gown but that is not her nature. Instead, when she took her degree in hand she grasped her future, one that will include graduate school, working with young people in need of guidance at a nonprofit and, she plans, opening of her own nonprofit one day to help at-risk youth.
Simmons is a member of Community Access Unlimited (CAU), which provides supportive programs and services to people with disabilities and at-risk youth to help them live independent and fulfilled lives within the community. Programs include housing, vocation and life skills training and advocacy, among others.
“It was exciting but it was surreal because so many people told me I wasn’t going to make it,” Simmons said. “My freshman year a teacher told me I was in the wrong major. I called my mentor and she told me that should give me more fire to go and get it.”
At the time Simmons was majoring in sociology. Rather than changing majors she added a second, human services, and earned a double degree while posting a 4.0 grade point average her final semester.
Simmons was accepted into three master’s degree programs and will be attending West Chester University in Pennsylvania this fall while interning at the New Jersey Office of Adolescent Services in Trenton and continuing to serve as a consultant to CAU’s Member Action Committee and Youth Advisory Board, the agency’s advocacy arms for its at-risk youth members.
Simmons is the latest success story to come out of CAU. A few years ago Thomas Frazier became the first CAU youth to graduate college. Simmons is the latest and will be joined by others, a tribute to CAU’s Transitional Opportunities Program (TOP) that guides youth members within or aging out of the state’s youth services system.
“Our goals are first to identify their needs and interests,” said Michelle Mobley, director of residential services for TOP. “Then we put together a custom plan and give them the tools to be able to pursue their goals. We assist them along the way, providing them with the encouragement and support. We connect them with services in the community and do a lot of outreach, anything that’s necessary to help them have the opportunity for success.”
Simmons took full advantage of those opportunities, according to Mobley.
“She’s very self-motivated and has utilized everything she has learned throughout the program,” she said. “She’s a people person, she’s goal-oriented and pursues those goals. Every opportunity she has been given she has put to use.”
Simmons frequently speaks to other at-risk youth and youth services professionals and tries to convey the message that everyone can succeed.
“First and foremost, you are the final decision maker in your life no matter what a case worker or mentor or anyone may say. You are the ultimate power,” Simmons said. “Don’t think you are the only one out there in your situation. There are plenty of successful people who have been in foster care and who have done it.
“I didn’t have anyone in my life and I still did it. I beat so many odds by going to college and getting my undergraduate degree. Remember, everyone can do it. You are the ones who can make things happen for you.”
For Simmons, that means turning her sights toward the next milepost in her life.
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