Moving forward: More than 650 graduate from Southeast Missouri State University

Sunday, December 18, 2011
Tiffani Stone sits with classmates during commencement ceremonies Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011 at Southeast Missouri State University. She pursued a degree in social work because of the care she received from a social worker early in her life. (Fred Lynch)

Tiffani Stone was not supposed to be here. Not on this day. Not with these people.

She knew the statistics, had studied them to help get herself here: 50 percent of people like her drop out of high school. Of that number, a scant 3 percent will go on to receive college degrees.

Eric Horrell of Ste. Genevieve, Mo., wore a nontraditional hat for commencement Saturday at Southeast Missouri State University. He received a degree in construction management and design.

Yet here she was at the Show Me Center on Saturday, all smiles in her cap and gown.

A "foster kid." Despite everything. In spite of everything.

Here. On this day. With these people.

Stone accepted her diploma Saturday from Southeast Missouri State University, along with 655 others at the fall commencement ceremony.

"I had to really want it -- and I did," Stone, 23, said the day before. "I made a decision in high school that I was going to go to college. A lot of foster kids don't have a support system. I finally had some supporters cheering me on and telling me I could do it."

But that wasn't the case at first. Stone described the first years of her life with a massive understatement: "Not a great beginning."

Stone endured 10 different foster homes in her first decade of life. In between, she was repeatedly returned to the care of her drug-addicted mother, where she suffered every form of abuse.

At 7 years old, Stone recalls stealing food and diapers from a local grocery store to make sure her younger siblings were cared for.

Not a great beginning. Certainly not a beginning that lent itself to any thought of college.

At 10 years old, though, Stone was placed in her final foster home in Bell City, Mo. Leasa Stone became Tiffani's mother in every way that mattered and, along with a social worker named Joan Quinn, weaned Tiffani off medications like Seconal, Ativan and Prozac.

The relationship between Tiffani and her new mom was rough at first.

"At first my foster mom and I didn't get along," Stone said. "We really didn't like each other very much. I did not make her life easy and my new life was very structured."

Leasa Stone had her own doubts, too. A frequent foster mother, Leasa wasn't sure she was even going to be able to keep this one. Leasa understands that some children need medication. Tiffani wasn't one of them.

"She didn't need that," Leasa said. "She needed someone to talk to. She needed someone to understand, to tell her it was OK. I was lucky enough, though, to see her potential."

Tiffani was expected to go to school and complete homework. She had a bedtime and her computer time was limited. But she was also encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities, and she played volleyball, softball and became a cheerleader. She even won a ribbon at a scholastic meet.

Not bad for a girl who flunked second grade.

"I was free to be a child," she said. " ... For the first time, I had a true home."

When next Stone saw her biological mother, a tough decision was called for. Her biological mother wanted her -- and her other biological children -- back.

Stone chose what she called her "new life" and asked her mother to relinquish her parental rights.

"Although it was the hardest thing I ever had to do, I asked," she said. "To her credit, she did the best things she ever did for us. She gave us up."

She was adopted by Leasa, and her two younger siblings were adopted by another nearby family. Tiffani was able to see them on a regular basis. Her adopted mother showed her what it meant to be a true mother.

"Every chance I get, I thank her for saving my life," Tiffani said. "Without her, I do not know where I would be right now."

Tiffani graduated from Bell City High School in 2007. After a brief flirtation with dental hygiene as a major at a small community college, she transferred to Southeast Missouri State. Soon after, she changed her degree to social work.

She credits that to inspiration from her social worker, Joan Quinn, whom she calls the only "constant, caring adult" in her life before she was adopted. Tiffani has such a passion for helping others, she said, because of what she learned from Quinn.

"Because of my life experiences, I can make an impact on someone's life -- just like Joan did for me," she said.

On Saturday, after the graduation, Tiffani and Leasa Stone went to pick up a graduation cake. After, they both took a few minutes to reflect on the past and the future.

"I don't think college was even in her dreams," Leasa Stone said. "I don't think it was something that she even thought could happen. But she made the right choices."

Tiffani already has a job in social work, working with children in Stoddard County. She's applied for the master's program at St. Louis University. Leasa thinks her daughter can make real change.

"There's no voice for these children," Leasa said. "I truly see Tiffany being that voice. Maybe that's just a momma's dream. But I see it happening."

As for Tiffani, she was still reflecting on an emotional day.

The difference was, she said, that she started finding strength she never knew she had.

"I never thought I was good enough to graduate college," she said. "Once I started my social work classes, I realized I am good enough and I do have strengths. And I found those."


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