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Bill Maxwell

Once a homeless "wild child," single mother Lalita Booth is well on her way to Harvard University

We hear a lot about the miseries of homelessness, but we seldom hear about homeless individuals who dig themselves out of their abject conditions to become successful. One such person is Lalita Booth, a 28-year-old single mom from Sanford.

Last week, she loaded her belongings into a truck and drove to Boston.

Booth won a $50,000-a-year Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Graduate Scholarship to attend Harvard University this fall. The scholarship is guaranteed for up to six years. Her ambition is to earn a joint master's degree in public policy and a master's degree in business administration at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Business School.

I wrote about her in February and stayed in touch because I sense she is going to do great things for a lot of people. Her journey from living on the streets to becoming a grad student at one of the world's greatest institutions of higher learning is inspiring.

Hers is a work ethic of "make no excuses." She said that homeless people who do not have serious mental problems should first look to themselves to begin reclaiming independence and respectability. Others will help those who attempt to help themselves.

Booth was born into a poor family in Asheville, N.C. Her parents often fought and were evicted from their homes more times than she can count. Booth became what she calls a "wild child." At 16, she legally separated from her parents.

She lived on the streets for a while, slept in a car and became an expert at "couch surfing." She married her childhood sweetheart, became pregnant and had a baby. Within two years, the husband grew tired of the dead-end routine. He filed for divorce, enlisted in the military and was deployed overseas.

Booth and her son were left to fend for themselves. She met another man, and they moved to Colorado. They found low-wage jobs but still depended on government assistance to make ends meet.

Just when Booth thought life could not get worse, it did, which turned out to be her salvation.

"My son, Kieren, who was 2 years old, wandered into the living room in a little blue T-shirt and a diaper," she said. "I remember that I was nervous about the diaper being wet. We were almost out of diapers, and I didn't have money to buy any more. Kieren said, 'Mommy, I'm hungry. What do we have to eat?' Nothing was in the fridge. We didn't have anything to eat. I couldn't figure out how to explain it to him. I put him to bed hungry that night."

That was when Booth decided to put the welfare of her son ahead of her self-destructive habits. She and her boyfriend agreed to send Kieren to live with the boyfriend's grandparents in North Carolina, and she vowed to get her son back as soon as possible. She finished the GED, studied to become an enrolled agent and got a $32,000-a-year job with the U.S. Treasury Department.

After she and her boyfriend separated, Booth moved to Sanford, where she enrolled in Seminole Community College. Shortly afterward, she got her son back. Getting a college education, she said, was the only way to overcome the many obstacles she had faced. She wanted to succeed and make her son proud of her. She wanted to be his role model.

She excelled at Seminole, graduated with honors and won a $30,000 Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship to attend the University of Central Florida. As she did at the community college, Booth excelled at UCF, and she graduated summa cum laude with dual degrees in finance and accounting.

Along her studies, Booth founded Lighthouse for Dreams, a nonprofit organization that teaches high school students financial literacy. She also wrote a guidebook to help poor and homeless people plan their finances.

Booth said she will use her work at Harvard to make a positive difference for the poor in the United States and elsewhere: "I believe financial education can change the world. My experiences instilled in me a deep dedication to ensuring that the young people and the disempowered are armed with the skills they need to become self-sufficient. In addition to teaching the art of earning money, we must teach the art of using it wisely."

Booth said she will stay in touch. From time to time, I will let readers know how this once-homeless "wild child" is doing at Harvard.

Once a homeless "wild child," single mother Lalita Booth is well on her way to Harvard University 07/18/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 20, 2009 8:14pm]

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