April 19, 2018
The word “intern” conjures an image of someone just starting out. Hamelmal, of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent, grew up in Germany. When she started working towards her Associate's degree in 2012, she was newly divorced, mother of a two-year-old girl, and not quite fluent in English — definitely not just starting out.
As an intern with United Way’s Every Student, Every Day, Hamelmal’s life experience informs her internship, offering a unique perspective that impacts her work, her parenting, and the students and families she supports as part of United Way’s Every Student, Every Day initiative.
So when she meets the mothers of the students who are missing school and listens to their struggles, she understands. “I see things differently. I know how they feel. But you just focus on the kids. You have to make it somehow. Even now, I think, ‘How did I do it?’ But then I remember. First you do one thing, then another. It comes with experience,” she says. “And, I don’t like to fail.”
Hamelmal works at a school in Lemon Grove to identify at-risk students whose absenteeism is alarming and provides personalized interventions to help the family. She connects with parents to determine what they need to get the student’s attendance back on track.
“I’m a mom, too,” she says. “When my daughter cries that she doesn’t feel good, I still have to send her to school because I know better.”
Part of the reason she knows better is the result of her work with Every Student, Every Day, designed to sound the alarm when repeated absences threatens a child’s ability to learn. Research shows a strong link between chronic absenteeism (missing 18 or more days a year—just 2 or 3 days a month) and high school drop-out rates.
Hamelmal also realizes that many of the parents she deals with don’t understand the implications of absence—or even being late to school.
“When a mother says, ‘It was only 2 minutes—what’s the big deal?’ I explain it to her, because I have the knowledge. This mom may not see that the absence pattern can make a huge impact on her child’s future.”
One mother on Hamelmal’s caseload had three adopted children who are all special needs students. “They were tardy every day and had lots of absences,” she says. “If the children were unhappy, she kept them at home. With all the trauma those children suffered, she just wanted them to be happy.”
Though she had difficulty reaching the mother at first, once Hamelmal spoke with her directly, everything changed. “I told her, I’m a mom, I understand. Kids are kids.” She also made it clear that for her children to have a better future, they must be able to compete with the rest of the world. “And to reach those standards, they must come to school every day. These are the things that contribute to the child’s success.”
A long conversation followed, bringing the two mothers closer, “to the point where now she stops by school just to say hi.” The children’s attendance has also improved. “They run up to me and say, I’m here! I came on time today!” She smiles at the memory and thinks back to her own challenges.
“I didn’t think I would get as far as I did,” she says, adding that in her experience, many of the single moms she meets have low expectations for themselves. “When I decided to go back to school, I was terrified; I didn’t think I could do it. And the thought of leaving my daughter somewhere for 14 hours a day—that was horrible. But once I started school, I found a way.” She located a daycare near her classes at Grossmont College; between classes, she volunteered at the daycare so she could have lunch with her daughter every day. “By the time I transferred to SDSU, my daughter was in a kindergarten across the street. I found a way to make it work.” Still, she understands that many of these mothers can’t think about tomorrow. “When you’re in survival mode,” she adds, “you just need a little help.”
But at the end of the (school) day, Hamelmal has a higher calling and a bigger purpose: Focus on the kids. “I want those kids to succeed. My goal is to get those kids [to be] successful.” And she doesn’t like to fail.
By Sue Greenberg
UWSD Staff Writer