Woman overcomes homelessness, foster care to get college degree and isn't stopping there

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After bouncing around in five foster homes and attending 16 schools, a woman finally got her college degree and isn't stopping there (KTRK)

Becoming a student at Sam Houston State University was no ordinary feat for JaCola Caldwell. After being put in foster care -- bouncing around in five foster homes, five emergency shelters, and attending 16 schools -- she landed here.

"I always knew, whether sleeping in cars or sleeping at bus stops, that education was the way to survival. My survival," Caldwell said.

Caldwell didn't just attend Sam Houston State, though, she graduated in four years with an international business degree, and she also found time to start a charity, Pay It Forward. Pay It Forward has won awards for its programs to support foster children. She has a message she is trying to share with other foster kids.

"I want them to know it is not the end," Caldwell said, "I was told so many times I was not going to make it past age 18 without being pregnant or as a high school dropout, and I've proven them all wrong. And whatever they've been told they can't do they can do, plain and simple. Look at me."

Caldwell's story would be remarkable if it ended after she graduated from Sam Houston, but the truth is, navigating the transition from one social class to another requires skills not taught on campus. And a girl who grows up moving from one home to another rarely gets those lessons at home.

Enter the Houston Western Area Chamber of Commerce. They are a group of businesswomen. Several of them were impressed by JaCola's journey, and two years ago began mentoring her.

"She graduated from college but she needed to be launched in her career," said Chamber President Jeannie Bollinger, "She didn't have any transportation, she didn't have clothes, she didn't have any of the skill sets that a young woman gets from being mentored, and that's where we stepped in."

Donna Vallone who owns Tony's and Vallone's restaurants is teaching JaCola etiquette lessons.

"We have kind of taken her under our wing and she's done well with the tools we've given her," Vallone said.

Other members have bought her a car, paid to have it serviced, given her financial counseling, and even hair and makeup lessons. It's been a two year commitment and JaCola is their only mentee.

"I'm their protege," JaCola said, "and I'm just so blessed because they could have chosen any girl and they chose me, and that just goes to show you God can take you from the back and put you to the front."

Of course team JaCola isn't done yet, but the road Jacola's already traveled, and the ladies who've helped steer her along the way, remind us what's possible with singular sacrifice and sisterly support. They're Houston Strong.
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