“I’m outta here.” These were the words Diandra Shears remembers saying to herself in the 10th grade. Following her mother’s incarceration, a falling out with her stepfather and multiple fights at school, suspensions and a series of other traumatic life events, Diandra saw no other options.
“I was fighting up to three times a week. School was a battleground and I’d reached my limit, so, I dropped out,” she said.
Throughout her whole childhood and adolescence, positive adult role models were absent. Looking back, she now struggles to remember a time she did not feel on her own. “I always had responsibilities way beyond my years,” said Diandra. Even in her earliest memories, she recalls cooking for her younger half siblings at an age when most kids were playing or having time to daydream. “There was no time for me to be a kid,” she said.
By her early teen years Diandra had bounced back and forth from the homes of different relatives. This unpredictable cycle led her to rebel at home and at school and the stress she felt began to spill into every interaction she had. By developing a “tough shell” Diandra felt she was merely learning to survive. Yet, her survival instincts soon led to more and more fights with peers – fights that quickly escalated from verbal to physical altercations. Soon it was hard to escape from the aggressive reputation she had built for herself.
“I was totally immune to punishment,” said Diandra. By high school, her aggressive was spinning out of control. “That’s when my fighting career really got going,” said Diandra. If her peers challenged her, she said she gave in to her temper.”At one point right before I left school, I was walking with an escort. Education was becoming impossible. “I never had anything to lose, so I just decided I didn’t care.”
Yet, underneath it all she did care, Diandra now admits. Months after dropping out of school, the regret of her decision overwhelmed her. There was no easy way back into an education system that had marked her as a “problem student.” It took her a year and a half for her to get up the courage to go back to school. Luckily, the first call she made was to East Side House.
Diandra signed up for a informational meeting to learn about East Side House’s Alfred E. Smith YABC Program, anxious to make a new start. She knew right away she had found the right fit, sensing that this was world’s apart from her last attempt at high school classes. However, walking into orientation a week later she vividly remembers seeing another orientation participant she recognized – a girl who had once been her enemy. Diandra stiffened herself and resisted the urge to react or make eye contact. “I remember taking a deep breath, and saying to myself, ‘this is my last chance.’
Diandra had no easy path ahead of her to earn credits toward graduation. Re-entering high school after a year and a half left her a schedule of classes that could challenge even the most dedicated students. She resolved to be that dedicated student. “I was taking all the hardest subjects and Regents Exams at the same time in order to finish,” said Diandra.
In the face of the mountain before her, she could have given up. Something was very different this time. She realized the difference was in East Side House staff. Even though her past and her sullied reputation had followed her, these teachers and staff believed in her. For the first time, nobody wrote her off, Diandra said. Instead, they raised the expectations for her. “They were tough with me. They gave me a shot, but wanted me to prove myself,” said Diandra. Suddenly, she felt determined to meet their high expectations.
In particular, Diandra remembers two YABC staff members, Khris Harrison and Althea Stevens, who took her under their wing. With their persistent encouragement and reassurance every step of the way, Diandra says she tackled every academic hurdle in her path. ESH staff placed her in an internship at the school office where she began to develop valuable clerical skills. The experience and the skills she learned made her feel important and needed for perhaps the first time in her life.
Yet, Khris and Althea pushed her for more – to open up and engage with her peers and staff. “I had made a conscious decision to not make friends and avoid trouble, said Diandra. Slowly, she began to break down the wall she put up, a wall only broken by her newfound trust in adults.
“I started joking around and calling them Mom and Dad,” said Diandra, who began to realize that Althea and Khris had become more like family to her than any blood relative. They would see her through some of her darkest moments, including a dispute with one of her previous schools over credits, a delay that cost her the spring graduation she had hoped for. Through tears, Diandra kept steady on her path, and it dawned on her that East Side House had helped her transform from that once rebellious young woman. “Everyone at East Side House kept fighting right alongside me,” said Diandra.
Months later, in August, Diandra officially graduated from high school. Graduation did not spell the end of her time with ESH. Shortly after graduation, she was hired as a Program Assistant at an ESH after-school program. “I guess they saw something in me that could make a difference with other kids,” said Diandra.
Diandra more than proved herself at her job, rapidly working her way up through multiple promotions. She became a unique mentor to the children in the program, especially kids that reminded her once of her formerly rebellious self. “I think when you know a little bit about the challenges these kids face, it makes it easier to break through,” said Diandra. While she encouraged students in their goals, she realized she needed to pursue her own and enrolled in college.
Through 14 hour days, balancing full-time work and college courses, Diandra prevailed. Next spring, the Program Director at Mill Brook Community Center will graduate with her Associates Degree. She will be given three tickets for the school’s graduation – tickets have already been spoken for. The affectionately nicknamed Mom and Dad, Khris Harrison, now Associate Executive Director of Operations and Althea Stevens, now Director of Community-Based Programs will have those tickets, says Diandra. The third ticket is earmarked for Natalie Lozada, Associate Executive Director of Programs.
Diandra realizes most college graduates invite blood relatives to such an occasion, but for her the bonds she has made is thicker than blood. “Without them I would not be here. I wouldn’t be helping other kids to achieve. East Side House is my family,” said Diandra