Madison HeightsJune 29, 2012
Two-time high school dropout overcomes hardships to graduate
By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer
As a seventh-grader, Amanda Persico of Madison Heights, now 20, fell in with a crowd of drifters, got in trouble and dropped out of school her first year at Madison High — only to find herself surrounded by worse influences when her well-meaning mom sent her to live with her dad in Florida.
It turned out her dad was a chronic drug abuser; her aunt was a prostitute; and her other relatives were strangers — none of whom wanted to deal with her. Persico’s life was in free fall, reaching rock bottom as she again dropped out of school, ran away from home, grew depressed and even tried to cut herself.
But with the support of her maternal grandma, Persico got back on her feet, finding work, continuing her education at Community High in Madison Heights, and enrolling in business management and technology at Oakland Schools Technical Campus.
Now she’s graduated from both, with a four-year scholarship to the University of Phoenix — Southfield, where she will study systems security.
She said she’s learned that there is always hope in life, no matter how far you fall behind, and she wants to share this message with others.
“I did a 360 turnaround,” Persico said.
It’s this desire to help others that first attracted the drifters in middle school, kids her age and older who preferred each other’s company to attending school. She’d hang out with them in a park and sometimes come home in a cop car.
“If she walked into a room and there was anybody who was a lost soul, they’d gravitate to her like a magnet,” said Persico’s maternal grandma, Carol Smith. “She wants to help everybody, and that’s how things happened: School started to not seem so important.”
Persico’s parents divorced when she was 1. At most she’d see her father for a few weeks every few years. That changed in ninth-grade, when Persico dropped out after a half-year at Madison High. Trying to distance her from trouble at home, her mother sent her to live with her father. It was a full house in Tampa: her dad, paternal grandma, aunt, aunt’s boyfriend, cousins and uncles were all together under one roof.
She was a stranger to them, and they were cold to her. Her paternal grandma took out her stress on Persico, stress caused by the bad behavior of Persico’s aunt and dad, who once pawned the grandma’s engagement ring for crack money and used Persico as a pity device while panhandling on the streets. What money Persico earned at her uncle’s nail salon was stolen by her dad, and she was denied the freedoms given to her cousins.
She fell in with more drifters at Blake High School and dropped out again after about a semester there. Years passed, and when she was 17, Persico could no longer bear living with her relatives.
“I knew people in Michigan cared, and they were trying to get me to go back to school, so they thought Florida would be better for me,” Persico said, her voice pained. “But those were the worst years of my life.
“I wanted to be by myself and think,” she said. “I actually cut myself once and had to get 16 stitches. I was just very depressed; I just felt like I was alone, and that nobody cared, no matter how hard I tried to get close to somebody. I just felt like nobody cared.”
Persico ran away, taking a bus to a trailer park where her boyfriend’s sister lived. It was crowded there, and the boyfriend’s sister was the only one with a job. She had kids to support, and there wasn’t much food in the house.
Eventually, Persico contracted parasites from the drinking water.
“It was painful,” Persico recalled. “I started losing a lot of weight. I couldn’t go to the hospital because I didn’t have parents available.”
At this point, she finally reached out to her family back in Michigan and let them know everything that had happened. They immediately took her back in, with Smith paying for her ticket back home. Soon she was treated and physically well again.
The whole Florida experience showed Persico what she didn’t want to become.
“I shudder to think,” Smith said of what her granddaughter went through. “It was bad, but it was good in that it was what it took to shock her.”
Smith took Persico out job hunting, saw a “now hiring” sign at the Checkers on 12 Mile and had her apply. Persico got the job and shortly thereafter enrolled at Community High, an alternative school for second- and third-chance students.
“They’re wonderful there,” Smith said. “When the other kids were screwing around, she told them this is your last chance, so wake up.”
Parallel to this, she attended OSTC and became well-known in the computer program.
“We were there one day for open house, and another parent was talking to the teachers, and one teacher said, ‘Here’s Amanda’s family — Amanda could take apart all of these computers and put them back together again,’” Smith said.
Persico and her boyfriend even helped set up a computer lab at Community High.
Now Paul Galbenski, the 2011-12 Michigan Teacher of the Year, has chosen Persico to receive the Teach It Forward scholarship, awarded by the University of Phoenix, which will pay for all four years of her extended education.
“I almost cried when they gave me the scholarship,” Persico said. “In the past, I never thought I’d graduate.”
Persico knows she was fortunate to have family back in Michigan who were ready to help her in her moment of need. They helped her realize the potential she had inside, potential she said exists in everyone, if they’re willing to seize it.
“It’s hard, but if you need support and don’t have it and it’s all on yourself, you have to go out there and want it,” Persico said. “Be motivated to do better; don’t be like the people who bring you down. Keep moving, and don’t give up.”
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