Education has been one of my main life goals and has positively changed my and my family’s lives. My parents were both illiterate and I am the second person in my family to earn a college education. I am the first in my family with a degree from the United States. After moving to the United States in 2010, I began to learn English. In 2020, I earned a Bachelor of Business Administration in Finance from Florida International University in Miami, FL. I am from one of the very communities EduExito aims to assist.
I was born in El Palmar de Yaque, a small village in San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic. We call it el campo, which means “the country” in Spanish. The main source of income is agriculture and the money the younger generation sends to their parents/grandparents from their work in the city of Santo Domingo, which is now three hours by car, and much longer by bus, but used to be even longer before a new highway was made. I never went to the city, a grocery store, or any type of store until I was 8 years old. My family mostly ate the food that my father and my grandfather grew on the land. The percentage of my parents’ generation who received an education was very low. My parents and grandparents, and most of the older people I knew growing up, did not have an education and many, including my parents and grandparents, were illiterate.
My parents and grandparents worked hard. My dad built our house, which was simple, with a dirt floor in the kitchen area and an outhouse for the bathroom. My mother did not have an indoor toilet until 2009. We did not have much, but we were happy. However, we also lacked education and medical access. Most of my family, including me, were born inside our home. A younger sister of mine died when she was a baby because we could not get her to the hospital in time due to the distance and lack of transportation. This is the horrible reality for these rural communities like mine. My father died of cancer when I was 8 years old. When he got sick, it was the first time he had ever gone to a hospital. His death drastically changed my life.
I knew that for us to have a better life, including access to medical treatment, education was the only option that we had to try to get out of poverty.
Like me, many students struggle to afford the basic school supplies that are necessary to even have a starting chance at education. There is not enough assistance from the government in these areas. I often used one notebook and one pencil for all of my school subjects. Today, children in these same communities are still in the same situation as I was, and they become discouraged with school. I personally know that having the resources to succeed in school makes a huge difference and this is why I want to help my community and others like it. This is why I created EduExito and I hope you will join us in our work!
My name is Michelle Ridley. I was born in Long Island, New York to a Dominican mother and an African American father. I grew up poor, as my family never had much, but we always made do with what we had. When I was 7, my siblings and I were sent to live with my mother in the Dominican Republic, as she was unable to return to the U.S for coming into the country illegally. It was there where I learned of poverty, drugs, alcoholism, violence, sexual assault, and much more. We lived on the second floor of a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. While we had indoor plumbing, my grandmother who lived across the street, and many others around us, did not. We lived beside a crack house, and to the right across the street, the house was known on the block for its brothel activities. We only had one mattress, so I slept on the floor, and many times went to bed hungry. The mosquitoes there did a number on my legs, arms, and butt, which I still to this day have the proof to show.
It was a culture shock living in the U.S. and moving to Santiago. However, as children do so well, we quickly adapted and learned the ways to survive the barrio. It wasn’t uncommon to see a young girl pregnant, either by a boy her age or by an adult male twice her age. Gunshots and roosters competed as the neighborhood’s alarm clock. Young boys would stand in front of the colmados playing domino or dealing instead of being in school. Everyone was just trying to survive. I almost lost my life twice while living there and my oldest sister and cousin also had a close brush with death after being hit by a speeding motorcycle on two separate occasions. Despite these traumatic experiences, I loved my time in the DR. It taught me how to be tough, how to defend myself, speak up and be loud and proud of where I came from.
I never had any desire to go to college, be someone’s wife or have babies. I wanted to live a fast and glamorous life like the boys in my neighborhood did. Funny how life has a way of showing you just how wrong you are. I became pregnant at 16 and my life took a turn. I didn’t want my baby to live the way that I lived, or to grow up and experience the traumatic things I’d already seen and experienced during my short time on the earth. When my baby was born, I made a promise to him that I was going to do better. I promised him that I would work hard, go to college, get a job, and give him a good life. I set out to do exactly that.
In 2007 my husband (then boyfriend) and I graduated high school with our baby by our side. Four years later we’d both graduated with bachelor’s degrees and I began my career as a social worker. I worked in nursing homes where I advocated for the geriatric population. In 2013 my husband was hired at an engineering firm in Kansas City, Missouri. We uprooted our family and moved to the middle of the country where we had no friends or family but like I did as a child, I learned to adapt to my surroundings. I decided to go back to school and in 2018 I graduated with my Master’s in social work. I became a medical social worker and worked for one of Kansas City’s top hospitals.
I’ve had the blessing of working with survivors of domestic violence, those suffering from addiction, and homelessness. I also worked on the mother baby unit. It was here where I felt like my life came around full circle. I worked with a young girl who was pregnant. She was still in high school, scared, and unsure of what to do. I immediately thought of my situation. I sat with her for hours, ignoring all other calls. I explained to her what her options and rights as a mother was. I played out different scenarios with her so she could have a clearer understanding of some of the situations that could arise based on her situation. I provided her with resources where she could obtain free diapers, clothes for her baby and other necessities. When I was leaving her room, she asked me how I knew so much about being a teen mom. I turned around and I looked at her and said, “because I too, was a teen mother”. She ran up to me and hugged me and we both cried.
Today I am in my second year of the PhD program of social welfare through the University of Kansas. My research area of interest is on the maternal mental health and overall well-being of teen mothers. I became a social worker because I had nobody growing up to rely on. I had to suffer in silence. I think back to the young girls I saw growing up in the DR and all the young kids in my neighborhood who didn’t have the same opportunities I had growing up. My mission is to give back to the communities where I came from because it made me who I am today.