TCC's Visions Unlimited lets homeless people gain higher education

FORT WORTH -- Melissa Bates can spot grammatical and spelling mistakes that others miss.

Bates, 29, discovered her editor's eye through a college program that gave her a second chance after she spent about two years homeless and struggled with depression.

Bates loves college life. She earned an associate degree in English at Tarrant County College, and along the way, she picked up purpose.

"I want to be a book editor," Bates said. "That's my passion."

On Tuesday, Bates will receive her degree at TCC's spring commencement at the Fort Worth Convention Center.

"If I knew how to do cartwheels, I probably would," she said.

Bates is the first graduate of TCC's Visions Unlimited program, which offers homeless people a chance for a better future through college. The program works on the idea that introducing homeless people to a college setting helps break the cycles that left them without shelter.

"When you are homeless, the goal is survival," said Tina Jenkins, a psychology instructor at the TCC South Campus and project manager for Visions Unlimited. Through the program, she added, homeless people are given a life preserver and told, "Take hold of this."

Students are encouraged to apply for financial aid, and the college works with those who don't qualify. TCC partners with Texas Workforce Solutions for school supplies and transportation. The school is also working with the Fort Worth Housing Authority to provide a place to live while they go to school, Jenkins said.

TCC and homeless shelters work together to sign up participants in introductory classes that open the path to traditional course work.

For example, in Psychology of Adjustment, students learn how to cope with stress, set goals and make decisions. Another class, Applied Psychology, lets students explore jobs, analyze careers, and learn interviewing and résumé-writing skills. Then counselors help students interested in a degree develop a higher-education plan.

About 75 people have gone through the two introductory classes, Jenkins said. Some are continuing to work toward degrees while others have chosen to get a job. At least one other participant is expected to complete course work by summer.

"We have people going through the finish line," Jenkins said.

Bates is hailed as an example.

Living in an apartment with the help of a housing program, she is continuing her education at Texas Wesleyan University as a double major in journalism and English with an emphasis in writing. She is paying for her education through financial aid, scholarships and loans.

During the spring semester, she was a staff writer for the university's student newspaper, The Rambler. Eventually, she wants to edit for the publication.

"It lit a spark in her," Jenkins said. "She took the vision and ran."

This week, Bates received a certificate of recognition from Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief that documents her accomplishment.

Bates had intended to go to college when she was at Eastern Hills High School, but she put her education on hold upon graduation in 1998 to help her sick mother.

She spent several years as her mother's caregiver and was paid through a hospice program. After Sherryn Powell died of liver failure on Dec. 15, 2004, "my whole world fell apart," Bates said.

Bates lost her income and had to sell her mother's house to settle debts incurred for home repairs. Without her mother and a home, Bates was lost and had to rely on family friends and later homeless shelters. She experienced downs -- even attempting suicide.

Her life took a turn for the better while she was working in the kitchen of the Union Gospel Mission. There she learned that TCC's South Campus was accepting homeless people for college. She started attending Visions Unlimited in January 2008.

"I jumped at the chance," she said. "I have been literally going ever since."

Bates said her mother would have been proud.

"I have no doubt she would be in tears," Bates said.

DIANE SMITH, 817-390-7675