Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Uhmbaya Laury: Overcoming the Odds to Succeed at Grossmont College

“…One day, I’m sitting at the kitchen table trying to do my homework without choking on the stench of crack smoke when I find myself staring at a pregnant teenage girl, stoned out of her mind and slumped in the corner. What will become of her baby? I wonder. What chance will it have in life?”

Uhmbaya Laury
Grossmont College student Uhmbaya Laury is more than a survivor. Coming of age as the crack epidemic began ripping through her Southeast San Diego neighborhood in the 1980s, Laury watched helplessly as the powerfully addictive drug transformed friends and family alike into a shell of their former selves. Determined to steer clear of the narcotic, Laury remained hopeful that her situation would improve – even while being forced to move 14 times in a seven-year period as her crack-addicted mother was evicted from home after home. 

Now Laury, who is helping other students through her job at the Grossmont College CalWORKS office, is telling her story through her new book, Why My Cup? How I Overcame Growing Up in a Crack House. She’s also on her way toward earning an associate degree in child development en route to a bachelor’s degree in social work or psychology.

“Being taken care of by responsible adults is something I never really had, but is something every child should have,” said Laury, 43. “I want to establish a career where I can help make sure that is happening.”
Why the book?
“My cousin and I would watch what was going on, and we knew that wasn’t the future we wanted for ourselves,” Laury said. “Still, the emotional impact of having to go through all that is overwhelming. In 2002, I called a crisis hotline, went into counseling and was diagnosed with clinical depression. The book is an outgrowth of my emotional recovery, but I also wrote it to inspire others who are growing up in a home where alcohol and drug abuse are present.”
Gerardette Nutt, a CalWORKS program specialist, said Uhmbaya serves as an inspiration and underscores the impact Grossmont College can have on improving a student’s future.
“She is a pretty special lady,” said Nutt. “She is someone who doesn’t just say she wants to help students, she goes out there and takes action to make sure students get the help they need.” 

That includes bringing food, toiletries and whatnot to help stock the campus’ emergency pantry. That includes helping students in need find housing. And that includes collaborating with the Basket Brigade of San Diego to recruit volunteers and donors in providing the fixings for scores of Thanksgiving meals to hungry students each year. Last fall, approximately 135 food baskets were delivered.

Laury’s odyssey began in Southeast San Diego, where she was raised by her single mom who also cared for a sister and four brothers. Or at least she did until Laury was about 10 years old. 

“Before then, everything was pretty typical,” she said. “We were a low-income family, we didn’t have a lot, but to me, it seemed like a pretty normal life.” That changed when members of a Los Angeles-based gang set up shop selling crack in the same apartment complex she lived in. “Overnight, our lives weren’t the same.”

Mom. Aunts. Siblings. They all got caught up in crack’s relentless grip. Her mom, a certified nursing assistant, found herself spending most of her money on drugs. Before long, the electricity was shut off because bills weren’t being paid. Then it was the hot water. “I was washing clothes by hand,” Laury said. “Panhandling money for food just to keep from going hungry.” Top Ramen was a feast. Chicken wings from a fast food outlet was something to be savored. “We were constantly moving, sometimes staying at the homes of my mother’s drug friends, one of which I was almost raped when I was just 13.”
At one point, Laury moved in with a grandmother in Chicago.
“My friends, kids I had known at the time, they were being pulled from their families and placed in foster care because things got so bad. A lot of grandmothers were suddenly raising their grandkids.”
As the years went by, Laury found work as a preschool assistant with Head Start and moved into her own place. But she knew the key to a better life was through education.
“I’d see a lot of my coworkers going to school to get the skills and education they needed to get ahead,” she said. “So I came to Grossmont College. But between work, raising a son and trying to care after my mom, who moved back with me the last six years of her life, it just wasn’t working.”
In 2015, Laury, then a divorced mother of two children, returned to Grossmont College determined to earn a degree and transfer to San Diego State University.
“When I came here the first time, I really wasn’t ready and didn’t much know what to expect,” she said. “I didn’t know what the campus had to offer, and I had a lot of challenges I had to deal with at work and at home. But when I came back and began looking at the resources that are available, I got nothing but comfort, support and the information I needed to succeed. You know you’re not alone.

“This has become my home.”