When Latoya Dudley was a third-grader at Dimon Magnet Academy, school was the last thing on her mind. Her mother had just gone to jail, leaving her and four siblings in the care of their 21-year-old sister. Money was scarce and the future uncertain.
That's when Dudley's third-grade teacher, Christy Nolan, extended a helping hand. She became a sounding board and encouraged Dudley to write letters to her mother. She made sure Dudley did her schoolwork and took her and two younger siblings to a local charity for clothes.
"Ms. Nolan, she stepped in and gave me that compassion, that support," said Dudley, her voice breaking as she recalled that period of her life. "She just always made sure that I knew I was loved."
That was 1996. Now, 17 years later, Dudley is getting ready for her job as a first-year special education teacher at Blackmon Road Middle School. And Nolan is director of professional learning for the Muscogee County School District, where she provides support for new teachers.
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Last year, they reconnected at Double Churches Elementary School where Dudley was a student teacher.
"I was doing my school improvement job, and I heard, 'Ms. Nolan! Ms. Nolan!'" said Nolan. "And I turned around, and there she was."
Nolan, who was a first-year teacher when she taught Dudley, said she always knew Dudley had potential. But there were so many obstacles to overcome.
"There are some kids that you teach that you will never forget," she said. "So when I saw her at Double Churches Elementary School - oh! - we cried that day. She called my name out, and I turned around, and I was like, 'Oh, my God!' And she was like, 'I made it! Can you believe I made it?'"
Dudley, 25, grew up in east Columbus, the middle child of seven children. She described her mother as a loving parent who supported the family the best she could when she was able to do it.
Her mother, Marjorie Boyd, is addicted to crack cocaine and has been arrested numerous times for shoplifting, she said. She went to jail when Dudley was in 3rd and 9th grades, and again when she was a senior in high school. And she's incarcerated now at Pulaski State Prison in Hawkinsville, Ga.
"When my mother was home, life was wonderful. Life was great," Dudley said, reflecting on home-cooked meals and family gatherings. "We never went without anything. I want to make that known. My mother is not a bad parent. She just had some issues in her life. She was actually a great mom."
But her addiction became a problem for her and her children.
"I just remember my big sister telling me, 'Hey, mom's in jail,'" said Dudley, recalling the day she learned of her mother's problem. "I felt hurt and neglected. It's just hard being without your mom."
Kenita Boyd, her big sister, stepped up and became the head-of-household. She was a young mother with twins of her own and making a modest living as a customer service representative at Afni.
"My sister was there for us," Dudley said. "And life was hard then because, you know, she's young, we're young, and it's just a lot of responsibility on one person. But she did the best she could."
The siblings started out living in a house that their mother rented, but they lost it because she had been buying drugs instead of paying the bills, Boyd said. So, while their mother was still in prison, Boyd relocated the family to another residence off Steam Mill Road. Those living in the house included Boyd and her two children, Dudley, two younger siblings and an aunt and cousin with special needs. Two older brothers also stayed with the family occasionally but floated in and out of prison. One of Dudley's younger brothers eventually went to live with his father.
Boyd, now 37, said it wasn't easy trying to keep the family intact.
"My family is close, and if anything happens, it's just a natural instinct for the oldest to take over and play that mother role," she said. "So there I was, 21, holding it down, trying to keep everybody together because I didn't want them to go into the system."
Dudley said it was difficult staying focused with so many distractions.
"With my mom not being there, it was kind of like I didn't really care about school," she said. "That wasn't really a priority for me when I was younger, and no kid should not care about going to school when they're in the third grade."
But as she got older, she realized that getting an education was the best thing she could do for her future.
"I had good teachers that instilled that in me, especially my 3rd grade teacher Miss Nolan and my 7th grade teacher Mr. Justin Finney," she said. "Seeing them teach kids and how they supported me, I didn't have that support at home, and that's when I decided: 'OK, I have to be serious about school."
Dudley was in fourth grade when her mother returned from prison. Everybody was happy, and it seemed their lives were back to normal. But Boyd soon suspected her mother was getting back into drugs, so she moved out with her two children, leaving her siblings behind.
"At that time, I was at the point where I was so fed up that I moved out," Boyd said. "But I still took care of my brothers and sisters because I knew they still needed me. They would call me and say they needed this, they needed that, and I was there."
When their mother went back to prison, Dudley was a freshman at Columbus High School. Her sister had two households to maintain, and Dudley had to take more responsibility. That meant practically raising two of her younger siblings at the age of 15.
"There would be times I'm at home taking care of my little brother and my little sister," Dudley said. "I would cook dinner, clean up, do the grocery shopping and still have to study for school."
She said it was difficult trying to run a household while a student at Columbus High School, where the coursework is so rigorous. And soon the situation fell apart.
One day a neighbor called the Division of Family and Children Services and reported the family for lack of supervision. Boyd said it was a heart-wrenching moment.
"I'm at work, and to get a phone call from my sister (Latoya) crying, telling me that DFCS is outside and they're trying to get into the house, it was a hurting feeling," she said. "I knew I was wrong for telling her, just 'don't open the door, don't say anything, they'll leave.' I worked at Opelika at the time, and I was like 'I'm on my way.'"
When Boyd arrived on the scene, she tried to explain the situation to the authorities, she said. But her words were in vain. DFACS took Dudley and her 10-year-old brother to a group home called Our House and their 2-year-old baby sister to live with a foster parent.
"At that point, I was helpless because I was losing my sisters and my brothers and I didn't know how to get them back," Boyd said. "But at the same time, I had to let the state do what they had to do, because had I not, they would have taken my kids from me. And I couldn't let that happen.
"So, I cooperated with them. Everything they asked me to do I did," she said. That meant purchasing a bigger house to accommodate the family, which allowed her to eventually regain custody.
Dudley stayed at Our House for three months, then went to live with her father. When that didn't work out, she spent another three months at the group facility.
"I didn't want to leave my little brother and my sister. That was like the main thing," she said, of her foster care experience. "I was like their protector, and I didn't want to be separated."
Yet, it was an escape from all her worries.
"I got to do things that I probably would have never done if I had not been in a group home," she said. "There were fishing trips and we went to beaches. The structure you had to get to use to, but overall it was fun."
By sophomore year, the stress was just too much, and Dudley transferred from Columbus to Northside High School. Around that time, her mother was back home and regained custody of her children.
But by Dudley's senior year, her mother was back in prison.
That same year Dudley got pregnant and gave birth to her daughter, Kira. She finished her coursework at the district's Teenage Parenting Center, which provided day care and other services. She graduated from Northside High School in 2007.
Throughout her pregnancy, Dudley said she had the support of her sister; the baby's father, Jawaz Wilson; and his mother, Janet Goodwin, a literacy coach at East Columbus Magnet Academy. Though they are no longer together, Dudley said she and Wilson have agreed to co-parent so their daughter could have a better life. And Goodwin has become a mentor.
Goodwin said Dudley is the daughter she never had, and she allowed her to stay with them when she was having the baby.
"She was never, never disrespectful," she said. "She was always hardworking. She was always a good mother, and I just really admired her wanting to continue even with the obstacles that she faced."
Dudley's daughter, Kira, will be a first-grader at Dimon Magnet Academy this year. She's been an inspiration to Dudley and the reason she decided to go to college.
"I have to be a better mom for my daughter," Dudley said. "I realized that working a regular job without a degree wasn't enough money to raise a family. I decided I had to go to school and have a career."
So, in 2007, Dudley enrolled at Columbus Technical College to become a dental hygienist. The next year, she switched her major to special education and transferred to Columbus State University. She worked three jobs to get through school and graduated in December 2012 with bachelor's degree. She's the first in her family to graduate from college and is already working on a master's degree.
"I'm just proud of her because she could have just dropped out of school and been one of these teenage moms that you read about that don't do anything with their lives, live off the state or whatever," said Boyd, her older sister. "She has come a long way."
Dudley credits her success to those who supported her on the journey. But she wishes her mother could've been at her graduation.
"She wasn't there for the birth of my child, my high school graduation, nor college graduation," she said. "But I know she would've been there if she could've been."
Now, Dudley is gearing up for her first assignment teaching severe and profound special education students. She hopes to have the impact that Nolan and other teachers had on her life. She also wants her story to be an inspiration for her daughter, siblings and students.
"I want to be a good example to show them no matter where you come from, don't let your current situation dictate your future," she said. "You decide what you want to do and where you want to go in life - not your past situations or circumstances."