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Monica Yant Kinney: Mother, teen try for better

Strange as it sounds, $2,800 may be what it takes to ensure Erica Mendez does not become her mother. What they both want for her is something different, something better.

Erica Mendez, 16, is out to break a cycle of poverty.
Erica Mendez, 16, is out to break a cycle of poverty.Read more

Strange as it sounds, $2,800 may be what it takes to ensure Erica Mendez does not become her mother. What they both want for her is something different, something better.

Erica is a 16-year-old honors student at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) who speaks, and sings in, three languages.

She has the grades and accolades, but bombed on the Preliminary SAT. So she is obsessed with taking one of those test-prep classes that are all the rage in the suburbs, but generally out of reach for poor city kids.

"The SAT is everything," Erica says. "I must do well on that test."

Her score will decide if, or where, Erica goes to college. And college is what would officially separate Erica from her mom, Enid Rojas-Matias - once a homeless welfare recipient and now an erratically employed struggler who harps about her mistakes so her kids don't repeat them.

"Erica has done homework by candles because we had the power turned off," Enid says with a mix of pride and shame. "We play Monopoly to teach the kids about money, even though I'm no good with it."

Now 34 and at the moment unemployed, Enid makes sure her life lessons are a required course for her children. She has taken them on field trips to police stations, drug corners and Greenmount Cemetery - to visit the graves of friends who died young and foolishly.

"You have to make your own decisions," Enid tells Erica, "but there are always consequences."

A kid having kids

When I met Enid in the spring of 1999, I was writing about welfare reform and she was a 25-year-old single mother of three with a high school diploma, a $16 interview suit, and a sketchy work history, none of which was wowing potential employers.

Home was a Juniata Park rowhouse with no heat, no hot water and no stove. Yet it was an improvement over living on the streets and in her Chevy Celebrity.

"I was a kid. I had these kids. I want better for them," Enid told me when I spent a day with her as she tried, and failed, to get a job.

"I don't want to be old and still waiting to be somebody. I want to feel like I accomplished something."

That summer, she finally did, landing a $9-an-hour position stacking soda displays for Coke.

Six months later, Enid was fired for missing work to fight the suspension of her driver's license and to deal with discipline problems that Erica, then 7, was having at school.

"I'm still trying to get my life together," Enid explained at the time. "It doesn't happen overnight."

We stayed in touch. In 2003, Enid had her fourth child and took a city job as a community organizer, earning $35,000 a year. In 2004, she married.

Life finally seemed stable, until Enid's oldest, Eddie, dropped out of Central High last year.

Enid quit her job, instinctively - to rescue Eddie and hover so Erica didn't follow her brother's lead.

"Eddie choose to leave," Enid tells me in the living room of the same rowhouse, now filled with overstuffed couches and a big-screen TV from Rent-a-Center.

"Eddie chose," Erica corrects.

Rather than being angry or embarrassed, Enid smiles.

"Why would I get mad at her? She's making it."

Summer school

Last summer, CAPA principal Johnny Whaley Jr. heard raves about a student of his who sang "Amazing Grace" as Aretha Franklin's opening act at the Robin Hood Dell East.

"When we came back last fall," Whaley recalled, "my first chore was to find out who this Erica Mendez was."

He found a sophomore fluent in English and Spanish and on the verge of mastering Italian. A young woman embracing opera and her Puerto Rican heritage. A member of the All-City Choir and the National Honor Society who updates her MySpace page after finishing her Advanced Placement English homework.

Whaley calls Erica "a delightful, accomplished scholar-artist." He's pleased she's pursuing a "reality-based dream" of college.

"School first, singing second" is Erica's motto. "I want to study forensic science. I learned about it at eighth-grade career day. All the other girls went for cosmetology."

Next month, Erica will attend a forensic science program at San Diego State University. The $3,000 cost was paid by the Ellis Trust, which aids fatherless girls with educational needs.

But it's a three-week SAT course at Princeton University in July that the teenager is obsessing about.

"When I took the PSAT, I was confused. I couldn't finish it," Erica admits. "That scared me because I know colleges use these tests as a benchmark. They'll look at me and my grades, and I won't match up."

She has already won a scholarship to cover half the prep course's $5,600 tuition. The Ellis Trust may pick up the rest of the tab, grant manager Terri Champion tells me, but it's not guaranteed.

So mother and daughter troll the Internet seeking financial aid. Enid has the time, since losing her job at a collection agency.

Once again, she's out of work, broke and alone, temporarily living apart from her husband. But with Eddie finishing his GED and planning to join the Army, Erica soaring, and the two youngest girls flourishing at school, Enid can't complain.

"I'll get another job," she says, assuredly. "My kids are moving up. I'm just on pause."