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Every day, Daliliah Wilson spends four hours simply getting to and from school.
Without a car or driver’s license, Wilson, 18, must take two buses and the light rail from her Wheat Ridge home to McLain Community High School in Lakewood, where she is finishing her senior year.
To arrive on time, she leaves her house by 6:15 a.m., two hours before class starts.
For Wilson, who is living on her own, working two jobs and attending school full-time, transportation is one of her biggest challenges. But she is determined to overcome the obstacles in her quest for a high school diploma, the first step toward one day becoming a pediatric nurse.
“It’s something that I take day by day and try to handle the best that I can,” she said. “Because I know that this is just one tough spot, and all the hard work that I’m putting in right now is going to be worth it in the end.”
Wilson is one of approximately 500 students identified as unaccompanied youths by Jefferson County Public Schools for the 2017-18 school year. They differ from the about 3,000 students in the district classified as homeless because they are not living with a legal guardian and are supporting themselves.
Some, like Wilson, have a stable place to live. But some students living on their own also are homeless, couch-surfing among friends and family or living in their cars, school officials say.
“There’s an economic piece that sometimes causes families to split up,” said Oscar Fonseca, community family connection liaison for Jeffco Schools who works with unaccompanied youth and families experiencing homelessness at all the district’s options schools, which like McLain provide a special focus or educational program.
Parents might leave for another state or country, but the child chooses to stay behind, Fonseca explained. Or kids run away because of a shambled home life. Or students sleep in their cars because a parent has died or is an alcoholic or drug addict.
But “our unaccompanied youths are really resilient,” he said. “They’re really driven. They are still looking to finish off school — and I’m amazed by the work they do.”
For Wilson, who calls herself a nerd who likes algebra and geology, finishing school is the reason she is on her own.
As a second-year senior, she will graduate with her high school diploma in December.
“High school hasn’t always been the easiest thing for me,” Wilson said. For several years she hung out with the wrong group of friends who she said encouraged her to ditch school and use drugs. “So, I’m really glad I got to a school where it’s not as difficult to do the things I need to do to be successful. It’s given me a great pathway.”
That’s why when Wilson’s great-aunt — who has had legal guardianship of her since she was 2 years old — moved to Colorado Springs, Wilson chose to stay behind.
Because she is so close to getting her high school diploma, she knows it is the right decision — even though it won’t be easy.
“I’m going to be the first person in my family to go to college and the first person in my family to graduate high school since 1976,” Wilson said. “I’m really proud of myself.”
Wilson has goals to attend Red Rocks Community College and pursue an associate degree of applied sciences. She eventually wants to become a medical assistant and work her way up to pediatric nursing.
“I’m just having a hard time because I don’t know how I’m going to make that happen,” Wilson said. “Money is a big reason. I know there are a lot of grants and scholarships out there, but there are also a lot of students who are in need of those grants and scholarships. So even though it’s a great thing, it also makes them less available. But I’m gonna make it happen one way or another.”
Wilson works two jobs, one at the new Michael’s in Arvada and another as a hostess at Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar in the Arvada Marketplace.
Before her great-aunt and great-grandmother, who also lived with them, moved, Wilson contributed toward living expenses with her paychecks. Her great-aunt is disabled and unable to work, she said, and her great-grandmother supported the family with her income from a job at a credit union. But a couple of years ago, her great-grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer and the family financial troubles worsened.
Now, Wilson’s paychecks help her pay rent on the home in which she grew up. The landlord has been nice enough to let her stay there temporarily for $500 a month, she said.
“It’s hard when you’re young and trying to do everything for yourself,” Wilson said. “With the prices of everything, (the landlord) could really be renting this house for a good $1,200 or more a month. It’s still tough for me to be able to pay everything, but I’m really lucky to be in a situation with a home.”
That isn’t the case for all unaccompanied youth.
With the lack of shelter space in Jeffco, especially for young people, some unaccompanied youth are living in much worse situations, said Jeanne Stongle, McLain’s career development coordinator.
“I have found over the years that in particular young men occasionally do end up sleeping in the park,” Stongle said. “They are aware they can go to shelters in Denver, but then they can’t get to school on time — so they don’t. There are some times when students don’t have anywhere to go, and that’s a shame in such a big county.”
Through the help of school resources, Wilson receives food assistance and recently applied for LEAP to help with electrical and heating bills. She also recently visited the Arvada Community Food Bank for the first time.
But anxiety overwhelms her at times, keeping her from sleeping and making her physically sick.
“The last couple months have been the most stressed-out months of my entire life,” Wilson said. She is always tired and sometimes has difficulty staying awake and alert in class. “I worry about everything all the time and my anxiety is a lot worse now than it ever has been before. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to try and cope with it.”
Wilson’s mental health state is common among students trying to make it on their own, Stongle said.
“The number one challenge is that it’s hard to focus on studies when you have a lot going on in your life,” Stongle said. “Not getting a lot of sleep because you don’t always know where you are sleeping, not having enough to eat, not knowing if you’re getting evicted from where you are…So it’s hard to focus on what they need to while they are at school.”
Wilson is thankful for the resources she is able to access through the district, Fonseca and Stongle. Like being one of 80 students utilizing a bus pass provided by the district.
“There are lots of Daliliahs out there,” Fonseca said. “Sometimes they struggle when they don’t have that supervision, but she still makes it to school.”
A positive attitude, Wilson said, helps her continue to put one foot forward.
“There’s a lot of obstacles I face,” Wilson said. “But I still have a lot of reasons to be happy despite all that I’m going through. I just have to tell myself that things are going to be OK and this moment won’t last forever.”
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