Editor’s note: We caught up with the most interesting people we wrote about in 2018. Learn what’s new with each this week.
Sharonda Jenkins was pregnant at age 12.
She was still in elementary school.
“I’m not sure how it happened,” Sharonda said. “We did not know what we were doing. But it was done.”
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When her pregnancy was discovered five months later, she was told her life was ruined.
“I kind of wanted to prove some people wrong,” Sharonda said 20 years later in a story published by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette in February.
She told how she was taken out of school and ostracized, and how people were quick to point fingers at her in her poor, rural community in the S.C. Lowcountry.
But she delivered a healthy baby girl, who was raised with a great deal of help from her own mother.
As soon as Sharonda was old enough, she began years of the long commute from Allendale to Hilton Head Island to support her baby. She worked as a housekeeper at Marriott timeshares, a cashier at Food Lion, a deli clerk at Publix and an in-home aide for elderly residents at The Cypress.
Sharonda finished high school and, 11 years ago, married a man with steady work. They built a house and had a little girl of their own while her first baby finished high school.
Shardona was doing well at The Cypress, but said, “I just felt like I was too smart to settle for that.”
She saved money to enroll in Denmark Technical College. She wanted to become a nurse.
Each Monday through Thursday, she drove 90 minutes each way to Denmark. She worked Saturday and Sunday, and kept Friday for herself. Her husband was working long hours as well, most of it on the road.
She got her degree, and when her story came out in the newspaper, she had passed the state exam and was about to start her professional career as a licensed practical nurse at the Beaufort Jasper Hampton Comprehensive Health Services clinic in Ridgeland.
One of the people celebrating with her was Nona Valiunas, who tutored Sharonda’s little girl, Sha’mya, at Ridgeland Elementary School, beginning in first grade.
Both mother and daughter stood out to the volunteer tutor from the upscale Spring Island community in Okatie. Sharonda was often the only parent to show up for conferences, every little celebration – even if it meant attending after a 12-hour night shift.
“Sharonda’s story is a salve to me,” said Nona. “She has refused to be bitter or downcast or discouraged. A lot of people get embittered and resentful, but she is full of optimism and perseverance. ‘Mrs. V,’ she calls me. ‘Mrs. V, I’ve got to do it. Put one foot in front of the other.’
“She makes me feel good. She is a hero to me.”
Sharonda’s story resonated with America.
After her story appeared in the paper, she heard from people near and far.
“I heard from so many people who were ashamed or embarrassed to talk about what happened to them,” she said. “I had no idea there were so many of us out there.”
Others said they just wanted to congratulate her, and tell her they were proud of her for being so strong.
People were impressed by the essay Sharonda wrote for her nursing class, urging nurses not to be judgmental and pile on with the guilt trip that teen mothers are already burdened with.
“The odds are already against us, but if you ever feel the need to judge, I want to leave you with this quote,” she wrote.
“‘There is not enough good in the best of us to criticize the bad in the rest of us.’”
Sharonda was invited to return to the school to speak at career day.
And then there was this.
“After reading the article, a friend here on Spring Island called me, expressing her admiration for Sharonda’s resilience and courage and asking if she could also become involved with the family,” Nona said.
Following much discussion (and the additional financial help of two other women on Spring Island), they decided that the most significant thing they might be able to do for the long-term benefit of this family was to send Sha’mya, the little girl Nona tutored, to John Paul II Catholic School in Okatie.
Sha’mya applied and was accepted into the seventh grade. Nona and her friend split the tuition cost, another woman pays for the uniforms and another the transportation.
Sha’mya loved it, but a few weeks into the school year, the school discontinued its transportation from Ridgeland. Sharonda solved the dilemma by taking the money that would have gone to the school and using it to fund private rides for Sha’mya.
Sha’mya made all As and Bs on her first report card. She had perfect attendance and no tardies. And she was selected the seventh-grade Snow Ball Princess.
“I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Nona said.