Homeless teen college bound after overcoming huge obstacles
Like millions of other teens across the country, Syretha Shirley just graduated. She earned her diploma from Pike High School and will soon be off to Indiana State University, but this 18-year-old woman had to overcome tremendous obstacles to do so.
Syretha was homeless since she was 11 years old, staying with aunts, cousins and friends.
She said she stayed at "dozens of places" over the years. In fact, the only way she's able to piece it all together is by flipping through a binder filled with letters and documents.
"I keep things with dates on them so I can remember where I was at the time because there were so many places, I can't keep count," she says.
Syretha said she was raised by her great-grandmother after her own mother dropped her off as a baby and never came back.
While she loved her great-grandmother dearly, Syretha had to move after her great-grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. She lived briefly with her father, who is doing time for drug charges.
"The lowest point in my life had to be with my father," she said.
And the highest? The year she spent living in Las Vegas with her godmother. Syretha said she had a great mentor at the Boys and Girls Club.
"I changed and strived to be a positive person, to look at situations differently than I used to," she said. "Blaming people and 'Woe is me,' I didn't want to do that anymore."
Syretha said she also found hope through education.
"The thing that kept me going, the only way of making it was school. School was my job," she said.
Syretha also received help from Outreach, a local non-profit that works with homeless youth. Outreach helped with things like transportation to school, lunches, textbooks and tutoring.
They also helped Syretha find a new home with a caring couple.
Carolyn Neubauer, a pediatrician heard Syretha speak at a conference two months ago. Carolyn and her husband Blake have five adult children, including two foster children they adopted. They've also had exchange students.
"It's how I live my life, trying to do mission work," Carolyn said.
Touched deeply by Syretha's story, the Carmel couple opened their hearts and home, just as Syretha needed a new place to live.
"I was very lucky. It was right place and right time and God," she said.
Carolyn said she was impressed by Syretha's "drive and perseverance."
She said the two sat down and talked about their expectations.
"One of mine was that she not work her freshman year," Carolyn said. "You have to go and figure out what college is about."
For the first time in her life, Syretha has a room to call her own. She's also considered one of the family, joining the Neubauers on a trip to California in August, which includes a stop at Disneyland.
It's a dream come true for Syretha. She said as a child, she saved every dime she could to go to Disneyland, hiding it in a safe place.
But she said one day her father found that place and the money was gone. Thanks to the Neubauers, she'll finally get to Disneyland. They'll also take her to ISU.
"I know college isn't easy and it's her turn to have someone say I'm here for you. I want you to be here at Thanksgiving and to know that's your room upstairs," Carolyn said.
Syretha plans to pay it forward by becoming a social worker.
"I need to set an example for others like me, that you can be successful, you can do something other than you've been taught your whole life," she said. "There's much more to the world."
Saturday, Syretha will attend a party at the Post Road Christian Church hosted by Outreach. It's for 25 homeless or formerly homeless young men and women who've graduated or earned their GEDs this year.
For Syretha and the others, that's no small feat. It's a huge accomplishment and one they hope will inspire others.