How a Ghanaian teen survived poverty to gain admission in U.S. college

When Karen Mills first met her father, she was 13 and getting off a plane in New York, her first time in America. He came to pick her up at the airport, but she realized right away that he couldn’t see her. He suffered from severe glaucoma. In all the years of their long-distance phone calls, he’d never told her that he was blind.

When she was growing up, Ms. Mills lived with her mother and three siblings in Accra, Ghana. Her mother sold candies to make a living, but it was barely enough to get by. Her mother often bought just enough food for the children, then swore she wasn’t hungry. Ms. Mills was frequently sent home from school because her family couldn’t pay the tuition.

Her father, who had left the family and moved overseas, called one day to say that she and her three siblings should join him in America, where they could get a free education. As Ms. Mills prepared for the trip, she dreamed of the long hours she would spend with the father she’d never really known. They could cook meals and play sports together, she thought, like the families she saw on TV.

When she and her siblings arrived at their new home in New York, she quickly realized that she would be less like a child and more like a caretaker. She skipped class to take her father to doctor appointments and came home every afternoon to make him dinner even when friends invited her out to play. The airtight bond she’d envisioned didn’t materialize — he was often tired in the evenings and frustrated that he couldn’t do more to contribute to the household.

“I felt like he was a stranger because I’d never met him before,” Ms. Mills said. “I would answer him if he asked me a question, but I didn’t try to make conversation because I didn’t know what to talk about.” She longed for her mother — ever-smiling, big-boned with comforting hugs — but tried not to reveal her homesickness when they spoke by phone.

Ms. Mills focused on her homework and earned top grades. But it was hard for her with little family support. When she saw classmates surrounded by their full families, she’d choke back grief and try to think of the positive.

“When I got my diploma, I felt heartbroken because I didn’t hear family cheering,” Ms. Mills said. “My friends were, but I needed my parents. I almost didn’t want to go because nobody was coming to support me or see me walk onstage.”

When she began taking piano lessons at Children’s Aid, which is one of the seven beneficiary agencies of The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, she found the family structure that had been missing. Nearly every day she stopped by its office, where staff members would ask about her friends, grades and college applications. She enrolled in its catering program so that she could learn recipes to try out on her father.

The Children’s Aid staff recognized even the needs Ms. Mills didn’t articulate. When she was a high school senior and getting ready for college, she realized she had no money for new clothes or dorm room furniture, but she kept that to herself, thinking she could work on campus to save money. Children’s Aid gave her gift certificates so that she could buy blankets, pillows, a laundry hamper and a new winter jacket.

On her own, Ms. Mills packed a suitcase and took a Megabus to the University at Albany last year to begin her college life, taking out loans to cover tuition. She set up her dorm room with a blush pink theme and hung photos of family members on the wall. At first she returned home every two weeks to visit her father, but he encouraged her to stay on campus and settle into her new home, keeping in touch by FaceTime instead.

Ms. Mills is studying human biology and psychology and hopes to become a physical therapist. She likes helping people work toward their goals, she said, because she has endured the toughest of circumstances and knows the satisfaction of surpassing her own expectations.

Two weeks ago, she hit her goal of doing five pull-ups. “I was so happy. It’s the feeling you get when you’re able to accomplish something you’ve been trying so hard to do,” Ms. Mills said.

It’s because of Children’s Aid, Ms. Mills said, that she knows what it’s like to have a supportive community cheering her on. “They really care about me a lot,” she said. “I can’t wait to be helping other people.”


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