Most folks who graduate from living in public housing — the projects — have absolutely no desire to return.
Humor aside, The Jeffersons theme song is certainly truth-telling in that regard:
“Well we’re moving on up, to the east side. To a deluxe apartment in the sky... We finally got a piece of the pie... Took a whole lotta’ tryin’ just to get up the hill. Now we’re up in the big leagues, gettin’ our turn at bat. As long as we live, it’s you and me baby, there ain’t nothing wrong with that.”
You get the point.
The memories of life in the projects are often fodder for two kinds of books: ones those who have “been there, done that” long to close, or ones they long to write.
Neither is the narrative for Marilyn Roberts II, a recent University of Akron graduate who grew up in Stark County Metropolitan Housing Authority’s 340-unit apartment complex called Jackson Sherrick, on the city’s southeast side.
Au contraire. This 24-year-old’s dream job is to return not only to the Housing Authority but explicitly to Jackson Sherrick, to put her social work degree in play.
Things really began to move in that direction for Marilyn when she did an eight-month internship at Jackson Sherrick.
Call it an “If not me, then who?” epiphany as she found herself looking into a sea of young faces, many that looked like hers, in need of role models to show them what’s possible and to serve as a road map to a safe landing in life.
“I’ve been where they are,” she said. “When I thought about it, it was really a no-brainer. When I was living there I was that kid, the one who nobody was telling about the importance of going to college, except for my brother.”
Internship at complex
A chance meeting during her internship with a young resident helped underscore that.
“ ‘You don’t know what I’m going through,’ ” she quoted him as saying. “Ironically, he actually lived in the same apartment I had lived in.”
Sharon Lamotta, site manager at Jackson Sherrick, was anything but shy in singing Marilyn’s praises:
“While she was here she worked in the office next to mine as a social worker with the residents … She was a sweetheart! She connected well with our residents.”
Laurie Martinez Massie, director of media relations in the Department of Institutional Marketing at the University of Akron, called Marilyn Roberts II to my attention:
“Social work department chair Tim McCarragher was moved when she told him that no one had ever even discussed college with her as a child, and she thought her life would always be confined to public housing and poverty … During the last two semesters, working with children and families, Marilyn spent a significant amount of time with children and adolescents discussing the importance of education. Dr. McCarragher told her that she could be responsible for countless kids who may end up being college graduates because of her work and her example. … He was moved to hear her story and felt it was really the essence of the values social workers possess.”
Also igniting Marilyn’s passion to help others was her 9-year-old niece, who has mild cerebral palsy. “I took sign language and began learning different ways to help her out … She’s the strongest person I know and she can’t even speak.”
Marilyn said she and her brother got involved early in the Upward Bound program, which helped them succeed. Upward Bound is a national, federally funded program providing intense support to first-generation, low-income students showing college potential.
Lots of student loans
Yes, she did get some financial aid, but lots and lots of loans too. So many that they’re overwhelming when she thinks about them now.
But advice she received from her big brother Marcus has eased the pain. “He said, ‘Sis, you’re going to die owing somebody anyway. You might as well make it worth it while you’re living.’ ”
This hard worker is proud that all of those loans were made without a co-signer.
“If you work hard and apply yourself you can accomplish something good” is her mantra and the urgent message she’s ready to share with others, most especially project kids.
Everything about Marilyn Roberts II — named after her mother — and her resume underscores her dedication and laser focus. It didn’t matter that the Canton Timken High School basketball player and graduate didn’t have a car at the time; she always managed to borrow a friend’s vehicle to get back and forth to her classes at the University of Akron.
Even more remarkably, she graduated with a 3.3 GPA, making the dean’s list five times, while holding down jobs at two different group homes.
She’s still working at both while waiting for the phone to ring about her dream job.
From my vantage point, it seems like Marilyn would be a dream asset to anyone’s staff.
Surprisingly humble and incredibly shy, she is intrinsically involved with wanting to empower and nurture in children their best selves. To hear her tell it, she can’t imagine doing anything else.
Finding that right fit didn’t happen right away.
Her first two years were spent pursuing a degree in electrical engineering at the Ohio State University where she worked in one of the school’s cafeterias. “I was always fascinated by electricity!” she said. But the fit just wasn’t there.
Marilyn had followed her now 28-year-old brother Marcus to OSU. Today he’s a banker working in Indiana and continues to mentor his little sister.
“I just try to be the best person I can be,” said Marilyn Roberts II as she restated her philosophy. “My goal has never been to be a rich person, just a happy one.”
Here’s hoping all of her dreams come true and she soon lands in the right place to help others do the same.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org