By Nona Tepper
Kiana Walker spent the holidays this year working as a life skills trainer at Restorative Rehab Service in Carbondale, a firm that helps those suffering from neurological trauma live independently and develop life skills. When she wasn't working at the rehabilitation firm, she was working as a cashier at Party City. But it wasn't enough. Southern Illinois University, where Walker is enrolled as a full-time student, in addition to working two jobs, has a strict policy that students who owe the school more than $200 cannot register for classes.
"It's ridiculous. My tuition is $20,000, how are we going to get it under $200?" she said. "My freshman year I think it was like $500 and I didn't have it, so my mom had to work endless hours to give me at least $400. She was still homeless at the time."
In December, Walker, a Proviso East High School graduate, reached out to Theresa Kelly, a District 209 school board member, to see if there were any resources available to help. Kelly put her in touch with 209 Together, a local service group that had awarded Walker a $1,000 scholarship in 2017, the year she graduated from high school. Officials from 209 Together partnered with the Best of Proviso Township community group and decided to start a GoFundMe to help Walker raise the money she needed to stay in school.
"I don't like to ask people for anything; I don't like things given to me. I'll usually just struggle until I get it for myself," Walker said. "When they first gave me the idea, I was like 'Uhh, I don't know; it feels weird. I don't know if this is going to work out.' But then they convinced me to give it a shot and step out of my little shell."
209 Together and Best of Proviso Township set up the GoFundMe, and Walker watched as contributions increased to $300 and then $500. But then after a few days, Walker received a text telling her that an anonymous individual had pledged to match donations of $250. Walker said she has no idea who it was.
"I was just really shocked; it was really, really amazing. I bawled my eyes out the whole day," she said.
After two weeks, residents raised the $1,000 Walker needed — and more. The GoFundMe account is currently trending on the site at https://bit.ly/2H239ht and, as of press time, had raised nearly $1,100. The money will be used to pay down Walker's account balance, so she can register for classes for the last semester of her sophomore year.
"I really just want to thank every single person who has helped me since the beginning until now and who will continue to help me in the future. I'm very grateful to have such generous and blissful souls to do it out of the kindness of their hearts. I'm not their child, I'm not a person from the neighborhood, I'm just a random college student.
"I honestly don't know if I could thank them enough. They're just giving me a chance at life to make something of myself and not go through any more of the hardships I went through in the past. It's honestly just a true blessing."
Walker's hardships began her sophomore year at Proviso East, when her mother's partner left the family. Nedra wasn't able to keep up with her bills and the family was evicted from their Maywood home. The Walkers bounced from couch to couch, as Nedra continued to work two jobs and slept in her car. At the same time, she was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, a painful chronic illness that affected her hormones.
"There would be times she thought about giving up on herself, so I had to stop her and witness that. It was very difficult," Walker said.
By her senior year, Walker was living with friends in Chicago but still commuting to Proviso East every day. The school's social worker arranged for a cab to get her to and from school, Walker said. She would wake up at 4 a.m. and then return to the house more than 12 hours later. "The family I was living with, I was very grateful for them; however, the mom thought we were running game on her. She thought we were just playing," Walker said.
The friend's family didn't believe that Walker's mom was working hard enough to support them and started bullying Walker. "I like almost committed suicide at their house. They made fun of my situation," Walker said. "So I left her house and then I basically admitted myself at a hospital because I had a breakdown."
She stayed in the hospital for about a week "and then when I went back to school, everyone was very, very helpful and everything," Walker said. "The social workers didn't tell them a lot, just enough for my teachers to know what was going on with me. Everyone was very, very generous and very giving."
To stay focused, Walker reached out to her grandmother, Sandra, and the two would pray together, asking God to help her, her mother and brother get through this difficult time in life. But the experience still took a toll on Walker's grades. By the time she graduated from high school, Walker was just above a 2.0 grade point average. She still dreamed of going to college and earning a degree in social work or psychology.
Walker reached out to school counselors and the community, asking for help with the college application process. She applied to SIU, and is the first person from her family to pursue an advanced degree.
Her mother continues to work two jobs but has found a stable apartment in Maywood. This Christmas, Walker paid one of her bills as a present.
"Life is still hard, I try and help them as well as helping myself," she said. "Without the love of my friends and community, I would never be where I am today."