The year was 2004, and April Lemus and her young family had hit rock bottom.
“My husband and I married very young,” she explained. “Our son was three, our daughter was just a year old and we were living in a one-bedroom home in old Baytown. We had no heat; our kids were always sick and we could barely keep the lights on.
“I was the first in my family to graduate from high school, and I knew I wanted to go to college. But we couldn’t pay for school, and we couldn’t pay for daycare. So I didn’t think [college] would happen.”
But college did happen, thanks to a flyer in a Laundromat.
“My sister-in-law had briefly tried the Project LeeWay program, so I knew a little about it, but I didn’t know where to go to get started” Lemus explained. “One day, I was in the Laundromat and I saw a program flyer that listed financial aid and free daycare. The moment I saw that, I thought: that’s for me.”
Funded by a Carl Perkins grant, the Project LeeWay program — which will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a banquet Thursday, Nov. 1 — helps low-income students seeking technical careers, single parents, displaced homemakers, and single pregnant women gain access to vocational and technical education and training at Lee College. A special Quickstart component provides students with six weeks of intensive training in math, reading, writing, study skills and computer skills. Additional program components including career exploration and job search assistance, and support services such as childcare, textbook and transportation assistance, financial aid resource identification and tutoring are also provided.
Upon completing Project LeeWay a student is eligible to enroll at Lee College.
Since its inception in 1992, more than 750 students have completed the Project LeeWay program. Of these students, 348 have earned degrees and certificates at Lee College.
“Although degree or certificate attainment is the program’s immediate, tangible goal, our mission goes far beyond that,” explained Project LeeWay Director Clare Fleming. “We want to help our students build their self-confidence. We want them to realize that they are smart enough to go to college, they are strong enough to tackle the challenges they face at home and at work, and they have the ability to create a better life for themselves and their families.”
Eight years after enrolling in Project LeeWay, Lemus is doing just that. A level three instrument designer at Dow Chemical, she earned two associate degrees in instrumentation and computer aided drafting and design from Lee College, recently bought a new home, and can now take her family on vacations, “a small dream [she] never thought would be possible.”
Although the path to success was arduous – Lemus and her family faced eviction at one point during her schooling – she credits Project LeeWay with pushing her to the finish line.
“I definitely felt like giving up at times, but that’s when my classmates would encourage me,” she said. “There were so many days that I walked into Clare’s office for no other reason than to vent. She always sat there and listened to me, and she always pushed me. She made me keep going; she made me finish.”
And two faces at home are especially grateful for that push, she adds. “My son is 11 now, and he still remembers what life was like before Lee College. He remembers the old house and the winter that was so cold he couldn’t feel his feet. He came up to me the other day and said, ‘Remember the old house, Mom? We’d still be there if you hadn’t gone to college.’ And that makes me proud.”
Twenty Years of Heart, the Project LeeWay 20th Anniversary Banquet will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1, in the Lee College Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $20 per person or $160 per table. Proceeds benefit Project LeeWay students. For more information, contact Clare Fleming at 281.425.6559.