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Program that gives a leg up needs help

Education can move a community forward.

I believe that.

The problem comes when a person doesn't have access to that education. Without it, people can't fully partner in improving the lives of those around them.

Some single parents fall into that category. Getting an education while feeding and providing shelter for children is not an easy task.

I know. I've been there.

Fortunately, for some, help exists through Virginia Place.

Paulette Jones knows that all too well.

Now a project coordinator with the office of the president of the University of North Texas, at one point Jones' life had taken a detour from the focused academic path she had planned.

Her father died during the first semester of her freshman year at the University of Kentucky in 1997, and without his support, her grades slid quickly. But her desire for a college degree never waned.

In August 1999, she gave birth to a son, which stretched fragile finances thin and threatened to push her dreams of a college education into a darkened corner.

"Being a full-time student and having a kid, I couldn't work," said Jones, 29. "As soon as he was born, I went back to class. One professor let me sit in the back of the classroom with him.

"I was always ambitious," she said. "Education at the time was the only thing I had going for me. I was the one most likely to succeed, and it seemed I had let everyone down."

That's when her sister told her about Virginia Place, a transitional housing and support program established to help single parents move Lexington toward a better future through partnerships with other organizations.

The program traces its roots to 1983. That's when Alberta Coleman, the founder of Lexington's Tenant Services, and Rita Story, a former local government housing coordinator and advocate, recognized the need for a program that would give one-parent families the opportunity to get an education and develop family life skills.

Coleman and Story secured financial backing from local, state and federal governments, enlisted the help of the University of Kentucky and other organizations, and ultimately opened the Single Parent Housing program in 1986. It was the first program of its kind in the eastern United States and only the second nationwide.

Initially, 15 families were provided housing, day care, health care and other support services. The name eventually was changed to Virginia Place because the apartment buildings were located on Virginia Avenue.

Now located a few blocks west of its original location, on Horsemans Lane off Red Mile Road, Virginia Place has 71 two-bedroom and eight three-bedroom apartments. Residents must qualify for HUD's Housing Choice Vouchers, also known as Section 8. It has served as a model for similar programs in Louisville and Bowling Green.

Executive director Beverly Henderson said the program easily provides each family monthly with the equivalent of $600 in rental fees, $500 in child care and about $2,500 in support services, such as counseling. Hundreds of graduates have used the program to get a leg up during its 23 years.

Currently there are six vacancies, with applicants in the pipeline. Still, Henderson said, applications are welcome.

Residents, who hail from throughout Kentucky, must be full-time students at a college or university or in a vocational program that lasts at least a year. Their pre-school children must attend the program's day care center.

Jones moved to Virginia Place in December 1999, when her son, Kendale, was 4 months old. She earned her bachelor's degree in communications in 2002 and won a Lexington Herald-Leader Fellowship in 2004 while earning her master's degree in public administration.

She eventually bought her first home through the Realtors Community Housing Foundation. Many residents take advantage of - partnership between the programs when buying a home, Henderson said.

"Single parents need all the support they can get in order to move forward with their education, which is the future for them and their families," Henderson said.

However, budget cuts are affecting every agency that works with Virginia Place. That means the program that helps others is in need of help itself.

"We'll take any amount," Henderson said. "I know the economy has slowed, but we still need self-sufficient families. We still need to get them off public assistance."

Henderson said graduates of Virginia Place earn an education, garner bigger paychecks, pay taxes, buy more consumer goods, and have children who are better students in school.

"It is an investment in our future," Henderson said. "It's a quality of life issue for our community."

Jones is grateful and she willingly sings the praises of Virginia Place.

Jones sold her house in September, and she and her son headed for Texas looking for a new beginning.

Although she had no job when she arrived, within two weeks she landed her position at the university. It was a leap of faith.

"If you can get an education and build your character, you can go anywhere," Jones said. "There is an aura about you, and (employers) recognize that."

Virginia Place helped build that confidence, she said.

"It lets you take your mind off the stress and concentrate not only on yourself educationally and personally," Jones said, "but also financially and emotionally.

"I highly recommend it."

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