“Scholars Unlimited was the magic I had been seeking.”

By Alicia Biggs

Alicia Biggs is the mom of two beautiful young girls. Look at photos of the three, and you see a typical, loving family. But Alicia’s road to motherhood was anything but typical. Although she is an educator with an emphasis in early childhood development and education, Alicia knew that she alone couldn’t provide all of the nurturing and support that here daughters (particularly Aliyanah) needed.

Alicia shared her family’s story at the Breakfast of Scholars; read the full text of her comments below.

Biggs family.corrected

 

Have you ever said something in passing that was sincere, yet you never thought anything would come of it? I have… and it did come back to me. The entire course of my life — and that of not one, but two children — was changed forever.

As a professor of early childhood education, I always told my students to give me a call if they ever needed something.  My classes always ended with, “If you ever find yourself in a position where you cannot take care of your children or you need some support, I am just a phone call away.”

While I meant those words, I never thought anything would come of it.  But those words did come back to me in an amazing and magical way.

One evening, I received a phone call from a past student. She asked me if I was serious when I said I would always be there if she needed me.  Still not sure of where this conversation was going, I told her yes.

It turns out that this particular student was homeless and staying in a shelter.  She was the mother of one young child, and pregnant with her second. She tearfully explained her situation.  She was struggling to hang on.  She knew she could not stay in school while in a shelter. She was struggling to support one child.   She said if she chose to keep the child she was carrying, both children would suffer losses. She feared she could not meet the needs of two children.

At this point, I realized I was holding my breath.  It was then that she said those words: “Will you adopt my baby?”

I did not hesitate. I said, “Yes, of course I will.”

I went home to a house that was anything but childproof and sat down to marvel at what had just happened. It still felt surreal.

But it was true. Seven months later, at age 50, I brought home a beautiful baby girl. I named her Aliyah and reveled in being able to dote on her.  As an educator I was armed with tools and knowledge to help my healthy baby thrive — and thrive she did.

When Aliyah was two-and-a-half, I began to feel she needed something more — a sister.  Someone to grow with, to socialize and play with. I grew up with three sisters who are also my best friends, and I wanted to give this experience to Aliyah.  So I went through the process to become a foster mom, then waited for whatever came next.

My now-daughter Aliyanna is what came next.

The day Aliyanna came into my life began like any other.  My morning routine… coffee… off to work.  But midway through my day, I received a phone call.  Social services asked if I would consider fostering a six-year-old girl. Her birth mother had not shown up to pick up Aliyanna from school. When social services located mom, she was intoxicated, and bruised from an altercation with her live-in boyfriend.  So Aliyanna was taken into protective custody.

When I first laid eyes on her I was stunned and heartbroken. She was emaciated… but that was only one sign of the neglect she had endured. Her teeth were literally rotting, and her hair had been hacked off.

Over time, I learned more of Aliyanna’s history… and my heart continued to break. Aliyanna’s birth mother had abused alcohol throughout her pregnancy.  As a result, Aliyanna was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

I was told that she had been locked in a closet and was starved. She had been physically, emotionally, and sexually abused. She had a vocabulary of only 150 words. Her anxiety was so high that she sometimes vomited.

I knew that even with my education and tools, I needed more for Aliyanna.  I alone could not positively support this little girl. I needed some magic.

Initially I enrolled the girls in my local neighborhood school. However, as a working mom, I needed after-school care.  So I moved them to another school that had an after-school program. But it soon became clear that this was the wrong place for Aliyanna.  At pick-up time, I arrived to find a setting that was chaotic.  Adults seemed to spend more time socializing with each other than interacting with children. I would see my poor dear daughter sitting in a corner by herself, rocking to self-soothe.

So I continued to search for a school with an after-school program. I needed one with a consistent stable environment, with caring adults who treated children with empathy and respect.  I needed a program that would meet my children’s needs and would serve Aliyanna well.

One day, I happened to drive by Ashley Elementary. The school was closed, but there was an after-school program on the playground. I witnessed organized activities with adults interacting with children. I saw teachers with bright faces, smiling and playing with kids. I was amazed at the warmth and happiness on display.

My investigation revealed that the program was Scholars After School.  I wanted to know more, so I visited the program.  I watched children learning in small groups, working on language skills, reading, and math. Children were reading recipes and cooking, and exploring art. After my tour, I knew that Scholars Unlimited was the magic I had been seeking.

Scholars Unlimited is one of the main reasons I chose Ashley Elementary for my girls’ educational journey.  Don’t get me wrong: Ashley is a good school. But after seeing the Scholars Unlimited program — the many activities provided, the warm and caring interactions of a dedicated staff, and the overall structure of a well-organized program — I knew this is where my children had to be.

I enrolled my girls at Ashley at the end of the 2014-15 school year, and immediately signed them up for Scholars Unlimited’s signature summer learning program.

Since enrolling in the program, Aliyanna has become a different child. Her anxieties have all but disappeared, thanks to the safe and stable settings in Scholars Unlimited programs. After their first day in the summer program, I asked the girls to tell me about their day.  Aliyanna quicky said, “It’s so organized, Mom! I feel calm when I am there.”  Imagine how I felt hearing those words.  My little girl suffered years of chaos and trauma, and now she felt safe and centered.

Aliyanna has developed a newfound confidence through the many activities and experiences provided by Scholars Unlimited. Activities like drama, singing and acting have helped build her self-esteem.  In Aliyanna’s words, “I found my voice, Mommy!”

When I pick up my girls at the end of the day, I see children who are engaged in learning, and adults who treat children with empathy and respect.

I am so very grateful for having found Scholars Unlimited, and for the unparalled support they have provided to both my girls. I honestly don’t know where we would be without this program.

Through the academic support and the enrichments the program provides, both my children are thriving. Aliyah has been challenged and has developed a love of reading. Aliyanna is now reading above grade level, and recently was named student of the year. She is so proud to share all of her accomplishments with people.

We need more school sites with Scholars Unlimited’s programs, so more children like Aliyanna have the chance to find success. If all children – those from low-income families, those who struggle to read, and those like my daughter who have suffered neglect and trauma — had access to this program, I believe we truly would leave no child behind.

I thank you for hearing my story, and I thank you for making this program possible for disadvantaged children.