To see her now, you would never know we almost missed our opportunity to see Betsy Baker, a highly motivated, compassionate and whip-smart woman share her talents and turn her circumstances of fear, uncertainty and struggle into a story of hope in order to make a difference for others.
“I had my son when I was a junior in high school; I was super young. You know, babies are such a joy, but I remember just seeing such sadness in people’s eyes. And I remember people saying, ‘Are you going to finish high school?’” Baker says. “When you have children that young, most people just discount you automatically and you’re not seen as college material.”
Baker did go on to finish high school and graduate college with an undergraduate degree in communications from the University of Central Arkansas and then a juris doctorate from the University of Arkansas.
She is now an attorney at Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, a wife, mother of two boys and board member of the Arkansas Single Parent Scholarship Fund, an organization that holds special meaning for her. Without the help of ASPSF and encouragement of the people around her, Baker’s story would be very different.
She was born in North Little Rock, but her family moved to Pottsville when she was in fifth grade in search of cheaper housing and to be closer to family.
“Things did not get better. My parents divorced, then my mom had a stroke. I mean, I sound like a sad country song. There were chickens living in my house at one point. I don’t know if there is something below dirt poor, maybe rock poor, I don’t know, but we were there. I had support in that my family loved me and would be there for me, but I did not have any financial support whatsoever.”
After she and her mother found an attorney to help her, pro bono, become emancipated, she signed a lease on an apartment in order to raise her son in her own home, without financially burdening the family. Her mother and sister helped with childcare while she finished high school, where she learned about ASPSF and how they could help her while exploring what would come next.
“[ASPSF is] taking on that role of empowering people to think of themselves as someone that can go to college and can be a college graduate,” Baker says. “Sometimes it takes a voice saying, ‘You can do this. We’ll show you how. We’re here with financial support and we’re here with emotional support and motivational support and we’re here to show you how to make your life easier.’”
Meeting a Need
In northwest Arkansas in 1984, Marjorie Marugg-Wolfe and Ralph Nesson noticed their community had many single parents without the skills needed for employment in order to support their families. According to the ASPSF website, those two began a grassroots effort to “provide financial assistance and personal support to low-income parents.”
Using a more holistic approach to supporting these single parents, they recognized the importance of removing the barriers to success that keep single parents from achieving their dreams of being able to give their families what they need. The mentoring, developmental workshops and career coaching combined with financial support were all immediately successful in getting the single parents back in school and paving the way for employment and better living wages.
It wasn’t long before the results were noticed by donors and influential supporters, and in 1990 ASPSF was formed to bring the program to the entire state.
While using the framework of the statewide organization for operations, the Single Parent Scholarship Fund of Pulaski County operated as its own entity outside of the state organization until 2019.
According to ASPSF communications director Michelle Gilbert, the statewide organization realized that after over 20 years, the number of students the program was serving was not increasing enough to keep up with the number of single parents who were living in poverty.
“In 2014, ASPSF started to examine fresher, more successful approaches to getting in front of potential scholarship applicants. The results of our research showed that we could have a greater impact as a larger, streamlined organization. Our new model aimed to make more funds available for scholarships and direct student services by consolidating administrative expenses of local SPSFs. We also benefit from increased recognition and awareness as a single, statewide organization,” Gilbert says.
“Most importantly, ASPSF and SPSF Pulaski County realized we could serve more students better through combined efforts.”
Today all 75 counties in Arkansas and also Bowie County in Texas are served by the statewide merger. The counties are divided into regions served by a program director and countless volunteers.
The volunteers handle applications and help at fundraising events, “but within each region, the people who work with the students are not just making sure the paperwork is filled out and saying, ‘OK, we will see you next time around,’” Baker says.
“There is truly a relationship they build with recipients where they are trying to be the support system that students don’t have. I mean that in every sense of it. I’ve heard many stories about students who call and say, ‘I have this crisis; I can’t handle it. I think I just need to drop out of school.’”
The volunteers make it possible for ASPSF to provide life-changing scholarships and support to thousands of low-income single parents each year.
According to Gilbert, the “volunteers strengthen families as they help strengthen our program and expand our reach. Their work goes far beyond the students we serve, strengthening the entire community and our state as a whole.” With more volunteers, more families can be introduced to what she calls the incredible power of education, adding that “with 100-plus ways volunteer, there’s a place for everyone on the ASPSF team.”
The mission of ASPSF is to enable single parents to attain self-sufficiency through post-secondary education. Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the ASPSF says pursuing education is the No. 1 way for an individual to raise themselves out of poverty.
“I’ve spent my life working in education. To me, this is the most directly impactful program that I’ve ever been a part of,” says Ruthanne Hill, ASPSF’s executive director. “Every scholarship check our students receive each semester is directly impactful at that moment, but also helps them move toward their larger educational goals.”
More than $1.5 million in scholarships is awarded annually to single parents across the state, and reports show that more than 80% of recipients stay in school or complete their programs each year.
While most scholarship recipients are between the ages of 25 and 35, ASPSF serves all single parents – mothers and fathers – right out of high school and single grandparents who are raising grandchildren.
“We know a traditional four-year degree is not the only path to financial stability. We support any eligible single parent student in Arkansas pursuing education beyond high school, including those enrolled in skilled trade programs. Whether you’re working toward a career as a welder, electrician, diesel mechanic or other in-demand trade, ASPSF is here to help every step of the way,” Gilbert says.
More Than Money
“When this organization started out, they saw there were a lot of expenses the single parents, when they’re going through school, don’t have the resources to pay for,” Baker says. “Juggling school with either no ability to work or reduced ability to work obviously affects your pocketbook.
“And so, to be able to help them succeed, [ASPSF] said we need something else. We need a fund where you can pay for childcare, rent, whatever other expenses – a high utility bill – other things that come up that most single parents don’t have a backup for.”
The organization has hundreds of examples of how this discretionary fund can make a significant impact on a family’s life. One story Baker tells is of a woman who was going to the laundromat because her washing machine was broken.
She had multiple children and after getting everyone, including herself, to and from school, fed, bathed, homework completed then dealing with any other daily surprises, she found there were just not enough hours left to continue to go wash clothes, and her budget did not allow for her to buy a new washer in the foreseeable future.
She called her contact at her local ASPSF to let them know of her plan to drop out. But because of the generosity of so many, the nonprofit found a washer and had it installed in her home to remove that barrier so she could continue to go to school.
“Whether it’s my car broke down, I can’t get a sitter, it’s just overwhelming — it sounds like not that big of a deal. But when you think about your day-to-day life, all the things you have to go through, and then being a single parent, every one of those things comes back on you,” Baker says. “It doesn’t take much to push someone over the edge, and I’ve been there. I remember when you hit the edge. One more thing is just one more thing and I can’t do this anymore.”
Setting up scholarship recipients to succeed outside of the classroom is a priority for ASPSF. The organization found that students didn’t always have the needed information to make good decisions or prepare them for the unexpected.
In an effort to reduce stress, there are a number of workshop opportunities where students learn about things like car maintenance, cooking healthy on a budget and finding the right resources to purchase a home. The group setting of these workshops fosters mentoring and camaraderie among the participants, something that also keeps the students focused on finishing school.
“Students initially come to us for scholarships, but at the end of their time with us, we often hear that the relationships formed and moral support received turn out to be far more important than scholarship dollars. ‘You believed in me,’” Gilbert says.
Changing the Family Dynamic
Three decades after Marugg-Wolfe and Nesson started their quest to give single parents better job opportunities to better support their families, the impact of ASPSF is much greater than just scholarships for school. They have developed a unique model that is used statewide to give a helping hand to those who could not see a path to higher education while changing the landscape for their children’s educational aspirations.
“Once you face what for young people is a crisis,” explains Baker, “when you have a child that young and particularly being a single parent, one of the greatest things you can do is give someone hope and show them and tell them that they are not lesser than. People come from communities where there is not a culture of encouraging people to go to college.
“If we can get someone into our program, a lot of times it's first generation, and show them that they can go to college and have them successfully go to college, it really changes the whole family dynamic. Their kids are seeing that. They are seeing that that is absolutely a possibility. That is who we are now. We are a college-going family.”
Today, Baker is walking proof of the mission of ASPSF. Her oldest son is a student at the University of Arkansas, while she is successful at work and was named a rising star in business litigation by Mid-South Super Lawyers. She has served on many boards and continues to give back to her community.
Reflecting back on her time as a single parent in college and her work with ASPSF, she says, “There’s a mental checklist of so many things, not only that you need to get done, but of things that you don’t know how you’re going to get done, and there’s so much fear there. You never sleep like a baby.
“Today, when I go to sleep, I feel like I am the dream that I was dreaming 15 to 20 years ago … There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful for where I am now because of where I came from. The wish is to get every single parent in the state to that point.”
With school beginning in August, the results of the impact of the merger between SPSF Pulaski County and ASPSF are not in for the 2019-2020 year. However, according to Gilbert, employees in Pulaski County have already begun to benefit from increased staff support from the state office.
More than 46,000 scholarships awarded
More than $27.9M in scholarship dollars awarded
393 graduates across the state
2,165 scholarships to 1,259 single-parent students
$1,609,681 awarded in scholarships