We refer to a young visionary named Shaquana Kennedy whose perseverance — combined with the unconditional support of mentors from her neighborhood recreation center and Pleasant Grove Baptist Church — changed her life by altering her path.
To borrow upon a familiar — and admittedly cruel — adage which tells the true story of too many true stories, Shaquana was born on the wrong side of the tracks.
A tiny infant of unwed teens, Shaquana was raised in the government housing projects of 6th Street and as a child she attended Blythe Avenue Elementary School. A facility lacking in many of the resources that other schools enjoyed, Shaquana remembered the tiny building’s image ... it was the school that all the poor kids attended.
And frankly, it was true.
Years later, the Blythe Avenue area would be acknowledged as “the” poorest neighborhood in Tennessee. Even in 2014, families in this district still live in modest housing and on limited means, but a variety of nonprofit organizations are now combining their influence to help build esteem through educational and training opportunities, and by engaging the total family unit.
Shaquana remembers her childhood well, and last weekend while delivering the keynote address at the MLK Community Prayer Breakfast, she offered no apologies for the roots that led her astray ... at least, until a brush with the law and a courtroom appearance made her realize the urgency in her life.
“I will never forget all of my experiences living on 6th Street and all those things that come with it,” she told a large assembly in the Bradley County Senior Activity Center. But then she added, “[I] am proud of it ... that’s who I am.”
It shaped her life.
It inspired her to seek change.
It swelled her inner strength and eventually forced this truth, “I don’t have anything. I come from nothing.”
Education became her outlet. A ring of support at church and in her neighborhood recreation center offered the motivation she needed.
It wasn’t easy. She was raised mainly by her mother because her father was in and out of jail, and he eventually landed in prison.
But she persevered. Against all odds, she graduated from Cleveland High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and today, at 31, she serves as a United States Court Probation Officer in Greeneville. She works with many whose early lives were much like her own. The difference is she got out. It wasn’t just a change in address. It was a change in mindset. And it was a commitment to redirect her path, one that — if not altered — would have put her eventually on the other side of the probation officer desk at which she now sits.
Her words last weekend tell her story best. It is one every boy and girl, and any young man or woman, should hear.
“I am not supposed to be sitting in the federal courtroom with the United States District Court judge [as a probation officer] because the statistics say that I’m supposed to be a high school dropout. I’m supposed to have three or four kids by three or four different men.”
She adds, “I’m supposed to be a drug addict. I’m supposed to be on government assistance now.”
Shaquana credited those around her with saving her life. She praised the miracle of divine intervention.
“This is not where I’m supposed to be, but God ... God has led me, and God has guided me throughout this journey, and I won’t ever even try to pretend that I forgot where I came from.”
Where she came from is a far cry from where she is today.
Others should rightfully share in this story of saving Shaquana. Adult mentors played a hand. A church provided guidance. Her belief in a higher power served as inspiration.
But much of the blessing lies with Shaquana herself.
She didn’t go it alone, but she — and only she — made the decision to change.
It was her first step ... the same first step facing any young person who is dealt such trials in life.
One day we hope Shaquana Kennedy will return to her hometown.
In her, we see a face of change and a voice of courage. We urge all to listen to her story and to hear her message.
Hers are words that inspire. But her life is a portrait of hope.