Tuesday, January 22, 2019

A Story of the Present and Future

Left to right: daughter Trinity, Natasha, husband Shawn
The story of Natasha Deleon House is not a story of the past. It’s a story of the present and future. Natasha has a past, a pretty rough one, but she is quietly tenacious, and talks about it matter-of-factly, almost as if dealing with a flat tire. She has roots now, a family, a home, a career, and a great life. Her past is her past. And, she readily credits Middle College, Ms. Jackie Epps and Ms. Mary Jo Washko, with being the fork in her road that branched her from that past to her future. Here's what happened.

First, a little about Middle College. Middle College is a Virginia Community College System (VCCS) initiative that is grant funded. It helps 18 to 24 year olds earn their GED and provides industry training for workforce credentials.  Remedial and workforce readiness courses, assistance with community college enrollment, community employment, and comprehensive support services are all part of Middle College. Since opening its doors in 2003, Middle College has ushered 750 graduates down the aisle to receive their diplomas. In recent years Middle College has expanded its programming to include certifications in Warehousing, Construction, Customer Service, and Nurse Aide. 

Now, Natasha's story. Natasha was in the very first Middle College class held in the fall of 2003 at Reynolds Community College. As she recalls, "We were at the Downtown campus. At the time I was renting a room in the West End and working full time at Big Lots. I had to take buses and taxis to get there, but I would get there." 

When she entered the program that fall, Natasha’s time as a ward of Virginia had just ended. She tried to get back in to high school, but she had been bounced around so much she didn't have the right credits for graduation. She reached out to one of the homes where she had been living and they told her about Middle College. She met Ms. Epps and Ms. Washko. She filled out the paper work and interviewed for a spot. And she was in. “Getting in” changed her life. 

"Ms. Epps and Ms. Washko have never stopped being a resource for me. They set me up to go to college. They set me up with exactly what I needed to succeed,” Natasha said. “Without parents to guide you, you become your own guardian. You don't have anyone to answer questions or help you figure out school. Ms. Epps and Ms. Washko became my mentors. They are always so happy and helpful. I had so many questions the first couple of years, and they always made time to answer them. Even after I graduated and up until now they still keep in touch with me and see how I’m doing."

From Middle College Natasha earned a certificate in Computer Aided Design (CAD) from Reynolds. “While working towards my certificate I was a single mom living at St. Joseph’s Villa. I was working at the Big Lots across the street, and going to the Reynolds Parham campus close by. I would catch rides to school or just walk.” 

With the help of Ms. Epps, Ms. Washko and past-president Dr. Gary Rhodes, Natasha got an internship with a large architectural firm. “Having that internship was huge,” she said, “I listened, watched, and followed. It was a world of difference from stocking shelves and being a cashier at Big Lots. I knew I belonged in this new world. But I had so many questions, I was sometimes afraid to ask, so I learned to “google” what I wanted to know. I was a drafter and pretty soon I became the go-to person for CAD/Revit questions. Having to figure things out on my own, I retained a lot of technical knowledge.” 

Natasha’s work as an intern was exceptional, and the company immediately offered her a full-time job with benefits. She stayed with them for nearly ten years, before taking another position at a larger, international firm where she has been for the past two years. In classic Natasha spirit she said, “My next step is to become a BIM Manager.” Building Information Modelling Management positions are highly complex and technical roles, given only to the best CAD/Revit super-users. While Natasha may claim to have had some self-doubt on her journey, her voice is clear and confident when she talks about taking on such a strategic responsibility as a BIM Manager. 

Natasha is soft-spoken and thoughtful, but she is unmistakably determined and focused when she tells her story. “Middle College was my first stepping stone to being successful. I quickly realized after turning 18 and being out of the states’ care that I needed to do something that would allow me to support myself better. Slowly everything lined up. Middle College was a big part of that beginning.”

To go from her past to her present was a huge leap. “This goes for anything in life,” Natasha said, “if you don’t think about it too much, then it’s not so overwhelming. I just broke each step down into manageable chunks and it wasn’t too bad. What I would tell my now 13 year old daughter, and what I would tell anyone who started out like me: make a plan. Pick one thing you’d love to do for the rest of your life and go for it. Stay on a path. Stay driven. It really helps me to write it down. I am obsessive about writing down my plans. I’ll take a picture of it with my phone and look at it all the time to the point where I have it memorized. You just have to keep after it, whatever it is.”

Could Natasha has achieved all of this without Middle College? She's one plucky woman, with amazing grit, so she probably would have landed on her feet. But, because of Middle College she didn't have to land on her feet alone. Ms. Epps and Ms. Washko were there to guide her when she had no one else. They were there to support her when she had no one else. And for that, Natasha said, “I will always be grateful, and very glad the program is still there to help others.” 

Like Natasha, the story of Middle College, Ms. Epps and Ms. Washko is a story of the present and future. Their successes have been impressive, but there is much more to come.