NORTH AUGUSTA - She lived in the dark underbelly of New York, but Shari Philpot finally made her way out.
She dodged danger for years before moving to South Carolina five years ago, and now the street life in Queens seems remote - even more so now that Ms. Philpot knows she's not trapped by her past.
In August, the 20-year-old will follow a dream that takes her nearly 3,000 miles from North Augusta, along with her baby boy and brother. There, at the University of California Riverside, Ms. Philpot will work toward a degree in microbiology, which she hopes will lead to a career as a brain surgeon. If the dream plays out, she'll be the first in her family to get a college degree.
All she has to do is figure out how to get to the other side the country.
She has no money. She's two months behind on her car payment, so creditors won't let her take it to California. At the end of the month she won't have her job at the Freedman Parenting Center in Graniteville because it has been written out of the center's budget, she says.
Family members have told her they can't help.
"This might be a success story that could have been but wasn't if I can't get to California," Ms. Philpot said.
The hope of a better life came in the mail a little more than a month ago. A typed letter said she had been accepted to the university with a $27,000-a-year scholarship. If she keeps her grades up, the money keeps coming.
The $200 she had spent on stamps for applications to schools on the West Coast had been worth it.
"I wanted it. I prayed for it. I went after it, and now I have it," Ms. Philpot said. "If you want something bad enough, you'll do your damnedest to get it."
She confined her search to the West Coast, she said, because it's "as far away as I can get from my family."
The way she pushed for her dream is the same way she pushed herself to achieve at North Augusta High School. She was such a good student that people found it hard to believe she had once lived among life's seamier side.
In New York, teachers and guidance counselors say they sometimes paid for utilities and food for the student's struggling family. The first time one school official visited, she said she walked into a dark, bare house with only a mattress on the floor and nothing in the cupboard. An empty McDonald's bag was on the counter.
The silver "NY" pendant Ms. Philpot still wears reminds her that she'll never again be the person she was in New York.
MS. PHILPOT'S STORY is written on the college applications in her words - words that might hurt her family so much that she doesn't want them printed.
But she isn't ashamed to say that at night, while she and her younger brothers slept under the stars in New York, "I wondered if God could see us. Did he know where we were? Did he see us outside the church, listening on Sunday mornings? Did he know about the Bible I had stolen from my grandmother? Could he help us, but most of all ... help my mother?"
A mother addicted to drugs is the reason Ms. Philpot and her siblings lived like street children, she said. It's why, at age 11, she turned to New York's Latino Kings gang for acceptance - switchblades, brass knuckles and all.
"I saw a lot of bad things, but they weren't anything worse than what we saw at home," - when there was a home, she said.
Often her mother was too stoned to notice that her children did not have food. Even worse, she didn't seem to care.
At age 15, she found a discarded sandwich and a half-empty pack of lemon cookies to split with her brothers, both so hungry their heads throbbed. She ate the crust and gave them the rest. That's when she realized that she had to be the mother that her brothers never had.
A few lines of poetry tell the story of her youth:
Why do we have to live on the street
without decent shoes upon our feet?
Do you love us? You say you do.
But I don't feel much love from you.
Hurt inside is all I feel from the top of my head
to the bottom of my heel.
Is it because you're high
that you left us on the streets to die?
IN A CLEAR MOMENT, Ms. Philpot's mother decided that she and her three children would come to North Augusta to be near relatives. It was there that their lives began to change.
In school and working two jobs to support her brothers, Ms. Philpot began dreaming of making a better future for herself. But there was another obstacle to clear first.
She was about to become a mother to her own son, whom she would name Kamaaz. She was 17, and already the legal custodian of her brothers.Only one brother stays with her now, and he refers to her as his mom.
Gavin, now a teen-ager whom Ms. Philpot home-schools, says "Shari saved my life" more than once.
He remembers the whippings he'd get from his real mother - a former police officer - because he and his younger brother would sneak outside while she was in a bedroom getting her fix. When she couldn't get "the stuff," Gavin says, she'd take it out on whomever was around.
He remembers searching through garbage cans for food because he was hungry. And he remembers his sister rescuing him from a burning bedroom after he'd set in on fire while playing with matches. Their mother had been "running the street" like she always did, Gavin said.
"Our life was crazy."
"Like the stuff on Jerry Springer, only we really lived it," Ms. Philpot added.
One credit shy of graduating with straight A's, she dropped out of high school and got married because her mother made her. The marriage, rocky from the minute the couple said "I do," is now essentially over, Ms. Philpot said.
With the wedding vows went the heady dreams she once had.
"Everybody said I had messed up my life and all the things I wanted to do would be impossible," Ms. Philpot said.
She believed them and went to work as a telemarketer until the hours got too long and the pay got too thin. She and her husband were supporting their son, her two brothers and her mom. Ms. Philpot saw a familiar thread of the past woven through her life and didn't like it. The dream crept back into her mind and stayed this time. That's when she enrolled at Graniteville's Freedman Parenting Center, where young parents can complete unfinished education while someone cares for their children. In just 17 days Ms. Philpot earned the English credit she needed for her diploma.
When Ms. Philpot, who still carried the hardness from the city, first came to Freedman, Gail Graham, the director of the parenting center, said she had a stare that would singe the gentlest of souls.
"There were two different times when I was ready to send her away and tell her never to come back," Mrs. Graham saidthe director of the parenting center}. "Then I'd think what a future she had in store for her if we could just get her straightened out."
"I don't remember ever seeing a smile on her face," Mrs. Graham said. "She thought the only way to get ahead in life was to fight your way through it. And people either followed her and did everything she said or they were afraid of her.
"I knew when I first met her that she would either be a force for evil or a force for good, and I'd rather have her on the side of good," Mrs. Graham said. "She'll be a national leader someday. I just know it."
Ms. Philpot now works at the center shepherding teen-agers who have led lives similar to hers. She also helps other counties set up similar centers.
Last year she went to Aiken Technical College and twice made the President's List.
Gradually, Ms. Philpot found her softer side - one she says she likes better. She began to understand that to be treated with respect, she had to show it to others. She discovered that energy misspent on anger and resentment had better uses. And she became determined to keep other young people from turning out like she almost did.
She laughs about it now. The bandanas she once wore as a sign of rebellion are in a dresser drawer "for bad hair days."
And skirts, she's decided, are not so bad.
Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.