A Woman's Journey Out of Poverty
Oregonian, The (Portland, OR)
January 29, 1995
A WOMAN'S JOURNEY OUT OF POVERTY
Author: BRYAN SMITH - of the Oregonian Staff
Section: NORTHWEST LIVING
DONNA BEEGLE Profile Biography Lifestyle
Donna Beegle had a dream of a better life. Would the power of that dream be enough to break the cycle of need?
``Years of poverty left her self-esteem shattered. Everywhere she went, she felt treated like a child: You will do this, you won't do that. Having prided herself on being a hard worker, she hated it. They treated her as if she were lazy.''
``If you could do anything you wanted, be anything, what would it be? Don't think about obstacles. Just dream.'' -- teacher, Women in Transition life-skills program for low-income homemakers
``Nine years ago I was sitting where you're sitting. I grew up in ghetto poverty, the daughter of an alcoholic and a mother with an eighth-grade education. You've all taken a step in the direction of your heart's desire. What you dream, dream big. Don't let people tell you you can't. I did. You can, too.'' -- Donna Beegle
Her footsteps echoing down a long hallway, Donna Beegle caught her breath as she headed to her first class at the University of Portland. For months she had dreamed of this moment, but now she felt nearly paralyzed by jitters.
I'm from another world, she thought. What am I doing here?
Students dressed in new clothes hurried by, laughing, as if they didn't have a care. Donna glanced at her own clothes, sale items from Kmart.
They seemed so young. Many lived in a world of credit cards and parent-bought cars. She drove a $200 clunker and shopped with food stamps.
How could she, 27, a single mother of two, compete?
As she peered into the classroom, she tried to remember how far she'd come. Heart pounding, she went through the door. As she settled into a seat, she clung to her only comfort: her dream.
Deep in outer Southeast Portland, growing up in one of the city's poorest sections, Donna rarely gave school a second thought.
At 15, already a ninth-grade dropout, she faced more pressing concerns. Like the 18 children she watched for friends and neighbors. Like her brothers sleeping outside in an abandoned U-Haul trailer. Like whether she'd come home to find an eviction notice tacked to the door of the family's clapboard shack, or find it darkened by an unpaid electric bill.
At one time, her stepfather had been a working man, a welder, proud to pull down a wage that could provide for a family. But that was before the cataracts. And the operations. And, eventually, the bottle.
Her mother, tender at times, tough when she had to be, raised Donna and her five brothers the best she could on what little they had. It was always too little.
Donna helped the only way she knew how: with hard work. Dressed in her thrift store castoffs, she cooked meals, watched after her brothers, hauled clothes to the Laundromat. She picked les and berries for a few pennies a pound, contributing her meager earnings to the household.
Still, by the time she dropped out of school, the struggling family had been evicted from more than a dozen homes. Some of her brothers had landed in jail for stealing. Every day brought a new crisis.
Donna wasn't sure what she wanted, but this wasn't it. She dreamed of escape, though in her world, such dreams were as common as eviction notices.
For her, the way out was marriage. School didn't help pay the rent. Books didn't get your lights turned back on.
Not that she'd been a bad student. Some of her teachers even said she was smart. And there was something nice about writing, putting your feelings on a page. She became an avid reader, devouring romance novels and tabloid magazines.
But such things were pleasant distractions; a husband, on the other hand, could care for you. All her friends married young. In 1975, wearing a wedding dress her mother bought at a thrift store, she joined them.
Things quickly turned worse, not better. Her husband's eighth-grade education brought only unstable, low-paying jobs.
Donna rejoiced at the birth of her daughter , Jennifer, two years later, but the child also meant another mouth to feed; a son, Daniel, two more.
The cycle soon returned: evictions, lost jobs, a lack of money. The good times that brought the couple together yielded to the reality of crying babies and stacks of bills. The escape Donna sought vanished like a mirage. Pressure, meanwhile, weighed on the marriage. Her husband grew distant. She held things together for nearly 10 years, until she returned home one day to find him with another woman.
Alone with her two children, with no job or income or education, she faced $395 a month in rent with $408 a month in welfare to pay it and all her other bills.
She paid the rent one month. Electric, the next.
The third month she found a notice tacked to her door.
She had seen it before. Too many times.
A desperate prayer
Desperate, she showed up at a county agency, hoping for help. Her husband had left no child support. At 25, she slipped deeper into the cycle of poverty.
I've failed everything, she thought: my marriage, my kids, myself.
When the agency told Donna it could pay one month's electric and no more, she slumped in a seat, too weary to cry. She wasn't much of a praying woman, but dangling at the end of her rope, she lifted a plea for help.
Not long after, a woman at the agency approached. ``I overheard your situation,'' she told Donna, ``and I just wanted to let you know there's a new program that sounds like it might be right for you.''
Skeptical, Donna left her kids with her mom and showed up one day at Women in Transition -- a three-week life-skills program for low-income homemakers.
She held little hope it would help; what did these women know about being poor? But the program dangled a carrot: If she finished, she'd be eligible for a low-income housing certificate. With that, she'd be able to find a decent home.
I'll do what I have to to get by, she thought. Once I have my certificate, I can start buildin g a life on my own again.
Her feelings changed with the first speaker. Crisply dressed, the woman strode to the front of the class. Donna studied her, mesmerized by her movements, her clothes, her voice, her poise.
She didn't speak with ``ain'ts'' as Donna did. Her shoulders didn't slump. She didn't wear worn clothes. Donna regarded her own looks. A little heavy on the makeup, permed hair, clothes a little on the flashy side.
The woman, and her appearance, commanded something Donna had known precious little of: respect.
Donna hung on every word. Like her, the woman had grown up poor and searched for escape. When she first came to the transition program, she'd been a single mother on welfare and food stamps.
Now, she was finishing a bachelor's degree. It wasn't easy; in fact, it was hard as hell, but they could make it if they worked hard -- and believed in themselves.
Donna knew she could do the first. The second, she wasn't so sure. Years of poverty left her self-esteem shattered. Everywhere she went, she felt treated like a child: You will do this, you won't do that. Having prided herself on being a hard worker, she hated it. They treated her as if she were lazy.
The women at the program treated her differently. They didn't laugh at her ``ain'ts'' or tell her she dressed wrong or call her the name she hated most: white trash. One day, the program teachers asked the class to dream.
``If you could do anything you wanted, be anything, what would it be? Don't think about obstacles. Just dream.''
Donna let her mind drift, back to her enjoyment of writing and reading.
``I'd like to be on TV, like Mary Hart. I'd like to be a news anchor.''
To her amazement, no one laughed.
``Oh, you want to be a journalist,'' the instructor said. ``That's a terrific dream.''
That night, she recorded two modest goals in the ``hopes and wishes'' column of her class journal. Before, her dream had been to find a man to take care of her. Now, she wanted to make her own way.
``One day I'd like to finish my GED,'' she wrote. ``And take a college journalism class.''
Time running out
As always, however, just as doors seemed to open, reality slammed them shut.
By now, in late 1986, she'd been evicted, and as Women in Transition graduation approached her time was running out at a ``roach motel'' on Northeast Sandy Boulevard.
The family teetered on the edge of homelessness.n ever.
Still, she stuck with the transition program, scrounging gas money to get to class, catching rides when she didn't even have that, accepting her mom's offer to watch the kids.
If nothing else, she felt better about herself by attending. She had sown the seeds of her dream; the classes provided precious nourishment.
She amazed the program's teachers by earning her high school equivalency degree just weeks after she'd set the goal. All that reading she did before may not have been high literature, but it sure helped her comprehension and writing skills.
But something else, something indefinable about Donna, also emerged. A passionate curiosity, a hunger to know about things, why things worked, why they were. Somewhere, she wasn't sure where, there were answers to her problems, the keys to her dream. She just had to keep looking.
Graduating from the transition program, she found the courage to aim higher and toured Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham. She wasn't sure what to expect. A life-skills class was one thing, but the idea of college courses made her uneasy. As soon as she saw the other students, however, her fears eased. Many looked and talked like her. These were her people.
Filled with pride, she told her welfare worker she planned to attend the school in the fall.
Before Donna could finish, the woman cut her off. ``You can't do that,'' she said. ``If you do, your welfare will be cut in half.''
Donna stared at her. She thought the woman would be happy. Instead, sh e seemed angry.
She weighed her options. If she quit now, she'd keep her money but abandon her dream of escape. If she chose college, she'd sink even deeper into poverty. Terrified, but welling with a newfound confidence, Donna gave her answer.
``Cut me,'' she said. ``I'm going.''
Her shoestring budget drawn even more taut, Donna cut every corner.
When her son's third birthday approached, she persuaded a teacher to allow a party at school. Instead of McDonald's or Chuck E Cheese, the kids shared cake and cookies in a friendly -- and free -- classroom.
More comfortable with authorities now, she learned the best -- and cheapest -- ways to find clothes, food and child care. Donna's mother, proud of her daughter's successes, volunteered to watch the kids.
Meanwhile, instructors at WIT, tracking her progress, linked her with agencies for people trying to climb out of poverty. She quickly settled into the rhythm of community college. Within weeks of enrolling in the school's journalism program, she published her first article in the campus newspaper. Within a year, editors named her public relations director.
The woman in the program was right. It wasn't easy. She sometimes didn't have gas money. She struggled to scrape together rent and utilities from her meager welfare check. Food stamps provided food; relief agencies, clothes.
She made sure her kids didn't go without, but could rarely give them extra.
Seeing her work reap rewards rekindled her drive.
One class required her to interview local television anchors, asking how they made it. Donna took it a step further, coaxing their life stories, picking their brains.
How did these people do it? she wondered. Did they have a special gene? Growing up in poverty, she'd just assumed they were better than her. The more she learned, the less she believed that.
Still, something was different about them. They spoke so properly, slinging around wo rds and phrases she'd never heard. They knew history and politics. For so long, those things had seemed unimportant. Now, she burned to know them all.
Terrified someone would discover her ignorance, she hid her lack of knowledge. When she heard a word she didn't know, she pretended she did. Then, scribbling the words in a notebook, she'd stay up late looking up every one.
While she still felt uncomfortable in many conversations, she slowly felt the ignorance retreat.
In June, 1988, her mother and WIT friends applauding, Donna beamed as she walked across a stage at Mt. Hood Community College to receive her associate's degree. She was the first in her family to graduate from college.
But her worries never strayed far. She still faced housing problems. She'd been able to find Section 8 housing, but she still struggled to keep payments up. Eviction notices loomed again. She scrambled for the basics. To make ends meet, she cut luxuries -- like a phone.
At the end of her long days, she found herself slipping into depression. Without doubt, her achievements made her feel better. But what good were they, really? Were they changing her life? Every time she inched her way out of the mire, it seemed to suck her back.
Why didn't she just quit? Find another husband. Get an OK job. m of escaping poverty once and for all?
No. Her good grades and low income had earned her scholarships. If she could tread water at home, she might make it.
Two years. A bachelor's degree. She could barely believe she was considering it. In the fall of 1988, armed with as much courage as she could muster, she arrived on the University of Portland campus.
A professor's interest
Her concerns that she wouldn't fit in were well-founded. Students sometimes snickered at the slightly older woman with the bargain-basement clothes. The one who couldn't seem to stop asking questions -- and acing tests.
Donna tried not to notice. She was too worried about k eeping up. Unknown words came at her in waves now . . . dialectic . . . rhetoric . . . pedagogy. Pedagogy? She looked them up, drummed them into her memory.
Professors watched. Donna's papers showed a depth, an empathy, an understanding of life rarely found in undergraduates. One of them, Bob Fulford, recognized how hard Donna worked, how much she seemed to care about the material.
One thing didn't fit, though. As smart as Donna was, her grammar was horrible. Hoping not to offend her, Fulford offered a suggestion. ``I've noticed some problems with your grammar,'' he told her after class one day. ``Would you like me to correct you?''
``Yes!'' she said. ``I'd love it!''
From that moment, whenever a double negative slipped out, whenever Donna's subjects and verbs clashed, Fulford cocked his head a little. ``What was that?'' he'd ask. ``What did you say?''
She'd blush sometimes; flush with anger, others. But her speech dramatically improved.
Her progress amazed him. She'd come to him with lists of words and concepts she didn't understand. If she had trouble following a lecture, she'd buttonhole him after class and make him explain it further.
The first semester ended with Donna on the honor roll.
Finally, opening doors
With every day, every class, she watched doors open. She had never heard the word ``networking'' before, but she seized on the concept.
While chairwoman of a panel that featured state Sen. Frank Roberts as a speaker, she forged a friendship with him that introduced her to a new world. She met Roberts' wife, soon-to-be Gov. Barbara Roberts.
The wider her interests became, the narrower she realized her world had been. If she could make it this far, she wondered, what else might she do?
Her answer came in the spring of 1990. Fulford's class was taking a trip to London and Paris: Could she come?
No way. She could barely afford gas money to campus. Fulford stepped in. With a certain scholarship and a litt le bit of creative financing, she could swing it.
And so, that spring, five years after she'd slumped in her first Women in Transition class, Donna stood marveled r of Big The city rose before her, big, brown and historic.
The side trip to Paris brought an afternoon at the Champs de Mars and the Eiffel Tower. Amid the whirlwind, she found herself stopping, pausing. This was her. Donna Beegle. In Paris.
It was real.
Back at home, life improved. After paying her 1990 tuition, her financial aid left her a few hundred dollars extra each semester. She applied for and got a job on campus that brought in extra income and allowed her study time. Slowly, as graduation neared, she weaned herself off welfare.
But once again, just as she seemed to be tearing free of poverty, she felt a tendril of her past pull her back. This time it was her family and friends.
The unwritten code of poverty, Donna knew, said that whatever belonged to one family member or friend belonged to another. If Donna had extra money, she was to share. If she had a nice house, friends and family should be allowed to stay there. They would give it to her if they had it, the reasoning went. But that reasoning, Donna realized, only perpetuated the cycle, dragging everyone down. If she kept giving away everything she'd gained, she'd never escape. No one would.
Trips home grew harder. The run-down house. The cluttered yard. Inside, always a crisis. The car had broken down; damn transmission was shot. Get the candles out; the lights may be shut off soon. Her stepfather was sick again and needed to go to the doctor, but who had gas money? Donna? Wait. A pounding on the door. The police. Some of her brothers running in back. They're not here, officer!
Donna felt herself slip into the chaos. By day, she lived in a world of possibilities, of thought, of opening doors. Here, the old feelings returned, the shame, the worry. It wasn't living, she thought, it was reacting. The less contact she had, the better.
No more. She was sick of it. She studied deep into the night, crowding concerns out with new thoughts and ideas and vocabulary.
This was her life now. Not the chaos. Not being poor.
She continued to excel -- maintaining a 3.7 average, winning awards and scholarships, meeting new colleagues.
As soon as she got out of college, she could be finished with it. Get a good job. Move on. Escape. That was the dream, wasn't it?
So why, she wondered, did she feel so lousy? Why did she still feel . . . trapped?
She missed her family so much it made her sick, but she couldn't go back, she just couldn't live that way again.
One foot in her new world, another in the old, the answer exploded during another night of tears and emptiness -- another night slumped on the edge of the bed, fighting for sleep. The truth, she realized, was she couldn't abandon her roots, herself.
Poverty had shaped so much of her life, it always would be a part of her, no matter how successful she became.
In so many ways, she had changed. In so many ways she was the same. She loved her family. Every one of them: her brothers, her stepfather, the mother who had tried so hard.
The difference was, she'd found a way out. Almost.
To truly be free, she could no longer hide her poverty.
She needed to accept it. It was time to tell her story.
Facing the past
The assignment, part of a theology class, was simple: Tell how freedom, or a lack of it, has affected you. Donna saw her chance.
Sitting at her dining room table, hands moving over her typewriter, she poured her feelings onto paper, tears spattering the type.
``Freedom,'' she began. ``Quite a loaded word.''
``Freedom from not seeing my mother crying because she doesn't know what we're going to do for dinner, or how we will pay our bills.
``Freedom not to tremble and feel sick every time I see a police officer, for fear he will post an evict ion notice on our door, or worse yet, take away a member of my family.
``Freedom to go to the doctor or dentist if I need to, and actually buy the prescriptions they scribble.
``Freedom to decent shoes and clothing that come from a store, not a church or agency that felt sorry for our family.
``Freedom to hold my head high and feel proud.
``And the biggest one of all: freedom to an education.''
Her hand trembling, Donna finished the paper late that night. A day later, she handed it in. She immediately had doubts. Had she made a mistake? Her shame was now out there for all to see. They all would know she didn't belong. Her poverty might drag her down again.
When she received her paper, she stared at the grade and the note scribbled on top by her professor.
``Best paper I've ever received.'' - During the next two months, Donna told her story again and again, speaking throughout Portland and Vancouver, Wash. Newspapers across the country picked up a first-person column about her life.
In April 1990, the University of Portland named her ``Communicator of the Year.'' A month later, she walked across another stage, this time to receive her bachelor's degree in communications.
Two days later, her plane took off for London, where she began work on her master's.
Coming full circle
On a chilly December night in 1994, Donna Beegle strides on stage at Portland Community College, a spotlight trained on her in the dimmed auditorium. She wears a tailored black business suit with tasteful earrings. Her hair falls in soft curls, framing her blue eyes, no longer lost under heavy eye shadow.
Babies bawl. Flashbulbs pop. The faces, many etched with the despair of poverty, warm to her words.
For her, the past years have brought a string of unbroken successes. In 1992, she earned her master's degree in communication.
Since then, she's completed course work for a doctorate in educational leadership and is now in t he dissertation phase. Her topic: people who have escaped generational poverty.
Her daughter, inspired by her mother, has earned a scholarship to attend Portland's exclusive Catlin Gabel School and is now in her sophomore year. Her son, a sixth-grader, excels in sports and takes for granted the day he'll join his mother as a college graduate.
The rest of her family still struggles: Her mother and stepfather, who no longer drinks, live in a trailer park near Seattle. One brother is in jail; the others fight to make ends meet.
Donna alternates between teaching at Portland State University, running a consulting business and her passion: fighting for the Southeast neighborhood she still considers home.
In October, she helped launch an effort to reduce the dropout rate at the school she herself dropped out of: Marshall High. She helped create a center for low-income students in need of health care, employment opportunities and housing services.
The women who sit before her tonight, graduates of a life-skills class for low-income women, know little of this. But they're no less riveted by her story, so close to their own.
``Nine years ago I was sitting where you're sitting,'' she tells them. ``I grew up in ghetto poverty, the daughter of an alcoholic and a mother with an eighth-grade education.''
The women listen, nod, dab their eyes.
For Donna, the torch is passed, the cycle broken.
``You've all taken a step in the direction of your heart's desire,'' she says.
``What you dream, dream big. Don't let people tell you you can't. I did. You can, too.''
Copyright (c) 1995 Oregonian Publishing Co.
reprinted with permission.