Michelle Cade came to Charlotte in August 2010 with five children, no job, a few hundred dollars, and a belief that she could make something of herself.
Last Sunday morning, Cade graduated with honors from Johnson C. Smith University and began planning the next chapter of what so far has been a success story.
“This is not the end goal for me,” Cade, 33, said. “There’s a lot I can accomplish – for myself, for my children, for my family.”
Cade said she has worked hard but has benefited from help along the way – including a scholarship program started by a Charlotte woman who wanted to help working mothers graduate from college.
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Cade grew up in a rough part of Detroit, had her first child at age 17, moved to Atlanta for a while and then back to Detroit. She had never been to Charlotte but while working as a waitress in February 2010, she got a surprise when she asked a customer where she lived.
“I live in the same place where God wants you to be,” Cade said the woman told her.
“Where is that?”
Six months later, she and her five children (including one who was just a few months old) moved into a motel on Sugar Creek Road. She was ready to return home, but then she got her first big break.
“A woman at an apartment complex in Hidden Valley gave me a place rent-free for two months,” Cade said. “I wish I could find that woman. She was my angel.”
Still, it was a struggle. Cade worked two jobs and got help from churches to pay her utility bills, but she said she was always home for her children in the evenings. With one year of college credit, she entered Johnson C. Smith in August 2011.
“I felt like I was the oldest one here,” she said. “It was tough.”
And then a year ago, she got one of her biggest breaks – a scholarship from ANSWER, a nonprofit organization that provides grants for working mothers attending college. The scholarship includes a mentor, and in Cade’s case, that was Sonya Muhammad, a UNC Charlotte graduate who has a master’s degree and is a licensed therapist.
“My job was to be supportive but tough,” Muhammad said. “Michelle is very determined, very motivated. But she sometimes bites off more than she can chew. My job was to teach her how to handle all that.”
The two women laugh about nights when Cade called Muhammad in tears. Sometimes Muhammad cried with her. Sometimes Muhammad got tough.
Cade had to deal with the challenges of raising the children by herself. She had to squeeze in a few hours of sleep some nights. At one point, her car was stolen, so she and her children had to learn to navigate Charlotte using mostly public transportation.
Susan Andersen, who founded the ANSWER program in 2005, said a record six ANSWER Scholarship recipients will graduate from college this year. The scholarship provides help to moms, single or married, who are full-time students and have school-age children.
“My kids have seen how my education brought a different type of people into our lives,” Cade said. “They see how important it is.”