When Catherine Kennedy moved to Minnesota in 2002 from West Africa, she had no idea what awaited her.
Born in Liberia, when war intensified there, Catherine and her family had to leave. They settled as refugees in the Ivory Coast, West Africa. However, the family had an American dream and chose to come to the United States in search of a better life.
As an adult, Catherine found employment with a residential services company as support staff, and then as a group home program coordinator. However, she faced some serious financial setbacks, eventually filing bankruptcy. Catherine began working a second job in order to make ends meet.
“On the surface I coped, but internally, I was struggling with letting myself and my family down,” Catherine said. “It was a grueling time. I had dreamed of making it in America, but I was thinking about giving it up and going back to Africa. I was not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel.”
In 2016, Catherine heard about the Women United Scholarship from Greater Twin Cities United Way through her church. The scholarship, for low-income women of color, is designed to increase their earning potential while also increasing diversity among early education teaching staff at the Montessori Center of Minnesota.
“When I heard about it, I knew I had to apply,” Catherine said. “I love being able to teach and guide people, which was already part of my work at the group home. I wasted no time putting my application together.”
She received the scholarship, which included tuition and fees for Montessori teacher training, a paid internship, and a living stipend.
“When I was awarded the scholarship, I broke out in tears of joy,” Catherine recalled. “It was the boost I needed to see life positively again- to dream and think about the future.”
Catherine began the nine-month teacher training program, which she balanced along with raising her two children, Bakisa and Madiba.
“There were certainly challenges but when I thought of giving up, I remembered why I was doing this- better pay, future advancement, personal goals, and my family,” Catherine said. “I’ve never worked so hard for anything in my life, but I had many reasons to keep going.”
Now, Catherine works with children from age 2 ½ to 6 at Cornerstone Montessori in Saint Paul. She says her favorite part of going to work every day is watching kids learn and grow.
“It’s so beautiful to watch their little hands and the deep concentration on their faces when trying to figure things out,” she said. “We’re planting seeds for these children, providing them tools to shape their independence and love for learning. I am focused on giving my best to the kids every day because I am so grateful for what has been given to me in this life.”
Women United and Greater Twin Cities United Way are committed to creating more inclusive education experiences and strengthening the lives of women and children in our community. Since 2005, Women United members have invested more than $6 million through Innovation Grants that support financial stability for women.