Aja coped with being homeless while succeeding in school

Aja Lowrey is devoted to a mom who made her the priority, especially when things got tough – homeless tough.

The second time they were homeless was emotionally difficult for Aja, then a junior at Chicago’s Walter Payton College Prep. At her mom’s insistence, Aja stayed with family friends with a spare bed to offer. Her mom stayed in shelters.

Worried about her mother’s well-being, Aja says she cried every night. But they had no choice, Aja recalls, as her mom said “she wanted me to be safe” and Aja needed to maintain good grades at her top-ranked school. 

And her mother’s expectations were clear.

Not going to college was not an option for me,” Aja says firmly.

Now a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Aja is helped in part by a $2,500 a year scholarship from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Interested in a career as a physical therapist, Aja plans to major in biology.

Aja celebrates her scholarship with Michele Washington, Payton’s former assistant principal.
Aja celebrates her scholarship
with Michele Washington,
Payton’s former assistant

Looking back on it, Aja regrets that out of embarrassment she took months to tell her school mentor that she was homeless. Once she found out, then-Assistant Principal Michele Washington offered much needed encouragement. She also explained that public schools are required to provide transportation and school-related assistance to help students succeed when they are homeless.

“My mom was buying me train cards every week. Even though a CTA ride is only 75 cents when you’re a student, you’re spending that twice a day and sometimes on the weekend for sports, so this was helpful,” Aja says.

She earned an A-average and was active at her church and school, including four years managing Payton’s first all-girl a cappella group. When she was unable to find a part-time job in Chicago, an aunt in Indianapolis helped Aja find work as a waitress. Every other weekend for a year, she commuted three hours each way by Megabus to work two overnight shifts at a Steak ‘n Shake.

My mom’s sacrifices are what did it for me,” Aja says of her work ethic. “I think that was part of my motivation. She sacrificed so much for me, at least I can do better.”

This summer the Chicago Tribune profiled the CCH scholarship program. In the front-page story Aja’s mother, Sherita, a medical assistant, talked about her pride in her daughter.

“It really touched me because we had a lot of obstacles with the homeless stuff, me not having a job, getting a job, going through an agency only to get laid off,” her mother said. “But when it was time for graduation, it was like we made it through all the trials and tribulations.”