Lalita Booth easily could have allowed life's circumstances to make her a perpetual victim and a failure. Instead, the 28-year-old single mom has defied the odds and become a role model and advocate for poor people.
Born in Asheville, N.C., Booth had a dysfunctional childhood. Her parents divorced when she was in elementary school. At 12 years old, she began running away from home. By 15, she had become a chronic runaway. One day, she hitched a ride with a trucker to another state, staying away from home for a month.
Things went downhill from there. The following year, she became legally emancipated from her parents, dropped out of school and began living on the street. She married at 17 and soon became pregnant. Her husband abused her, and she divorced him little more than two years later. For more than a year, she was often homeless. At one time, she lived in her beat-up Subaru.
Then she had an experience that changed her life. She and her boyfriend, along with her 2-year-old son, moved to Colorado in hopes of finding better jobs. They wound up working for minimum wage and accepting emergency family assistance and a month of free day care provided by the state. Their small savings ran out and so did the free day care. The food they had received from the local pantry ran out, too.
"My son, Kieren, 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. He 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. The next day, my boyfriend and I decided to send Kieren back to North Carolina to live with his paternal grandparents. I didn't want him to go, but I simply didn't have any way to take care of him.
"I wasn't going to stubbornly keep him at my house and subject him to going hungry. But I also resolved at that point that I was not going to let someone else raise my son. He meant everything to me, enough that I was willing to give him up to see him safe and cared for. I was going to work like hell to get him back and never have to give him up again. He was only gone for seven months, thankfully. I think that experience is also the thing that gave me such a strong sense of dedication to empowering the poor. I know how horrible it was for me not to be able to care for my child. Watching his tiny hand wave goodbye was the most painful thing I've ever experienced."
While her son was gone, Booth convinced a financial planner to work with her free of charge. They calculated how much she would need to earn to survive and get her son back. She read about Enrolled Agents, a profession governed by the U.S. Treasury Department. As an agent representing taxpayers before the IRS, she could earn as much as $32,000 a year. She took the training, passed the exam and landed a job. With a steady paycheck, she got her son back and moved to Sanford, where she enrolled at Seminole Community College. She excelled in the classroom and in extracurricular activities.
"I think community colleges are a great opportunity for people to get their life back on track," she said. "I could never have been accepted into a university at that time."
Having learned the value of research in becoming self-sufficient at Seminole, Booth looked for scholarships that would help her continue her college career. She was awarded a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Scholarship worth $30,000 to attend the University of Central Florida, where she is majoring in finance and accounting.
Meanwhile, she founded Lighthouse for Dreams, a nonprofit organization that teaches high school students financial literacy, and she has written a guidebook to help the poor plan their finances.
Last year, again because of research, she became the first UCF student to be awarded the Harry Truman Scholarship, which provides up to $30,000 for graduate study. With a 4.0 grade point average, she has been accepted to the MBA program at Harvard University.
She said that she intends to put her degree from Harvard to practical use.
"I believe financial education can change the world," she said. "This belief arises not from idealism but from firsthand knowledge of the price that financial illiteracy can exact, especially on the young. Although I am now financially stable, my experiences instilled in me a deep dedication to ensuring that the young 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."