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Student Stories

A Mother’s Hard Work Pays Off

May 10, 2022

This June, Denise O’Neal will watch her son graduate from high school and head off to college. In a way, when she watches Brenden mark this milestone it will bring her journey full circle. 

Learning from the Past 

When Denise was in school, she spent years working with tutors without much progress. As it turns out, she had a learning disability.  

“Teachers just didn’t recognize it. Learning disabilities were not as in the forefront as they are now. Everyone just thought I wasn’t good at school,” she said. 

While she had enough school credits to walk in her 1988 high school graduation, California withheld her diploma until she passed the required state proficiency exams.  

For years, Denise would show up—sometimes twice a year—to take the reading proficiency exam with hopes of getting her diploma. 

“I just wanted to get it,” she said. “It was one of those things you just want to get, because you just need to do it for you. I was working so hard to get it. I wasn’t going to let it defeat me.” 

After eight years, Denise passed. And while she finally had her diploma in hand, she considered herself far from “proficient” in reading. 

“My husband is the one who said something so long ago. He said, ‘I think you need to get some help,’” she said. 

Her husband, who loved to read, would read to Brenden when he was young using many different voices and animated movements, Denise said. 

“And I was very … monotone. Just reading the same tone the whole way and wouldn’t make any sounds or movements,” she said. “I was reading a Dr. Seuss book to my son and was stumbling over the words. For a Dr. Seuss book that I would think a second grader could read, I was having trouble.” 

In her mid-30s, Denise sought help at the San Diego Council on Literacy. Her initial assessment showed she read at about a sixth-grade level. She was paired with a literacy tutor and they began working so Denise could read with her son. 

Not long after Brenden started school, Denise started to notice some of the same things that she had gone through in school.  

“Because I wasn’t very successful, I want him to be successful,” she said.  

Brenden was tested for and diagnosed with a learning disability. By the sixth grade, he was equipped with an IEP to receive accommodations in class, something Denise regrets never being offered.  

“They have had IEPs since I was in school, but I was never tested,” she said. “People just thought I was dumb. So now, I’m my son’s advocate. I go to bat for him every time.” 

Back to School 

To this day Denise is still insecure about her reading, but at work she knows it’s something she has to do.  

“If I don’t have a boss that’s understanding and that’s nurturing then I don’t tell them,” she said about her reading difficulties. “It becomes very discouraging and very heavy on me, and I get into, like, depression and anxiety, and I have to leave the job because I know this person will never understand.” 

But she did find a person who understood, a person who set her on the path to where she is today. 

As a receptionist at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido years ago, and with a newfound confidence from her literacy instruction, Denise asked the new human resources manager if she needed help with anything. 

“She took me under her wing and taught me everything I know,” Denise said.  

She wanted to learn more about HR and back it up with an official certificate, so she enrolled at Cal State San Marcos. 

“Going back to school I thought, ‘Here we go again.’ But it was different, and I think it was different because it was something I enjoyed. I love doing HR. It’s what I’m good at,” she said. 

She completed the program and got her certificate, all while holding a full-time job and taking care of her family obligations. 

As Brenden got a little older, Denise left work to raise him. When she decided to go back to work again, the gap in her resume made it difficult. Not to be deterred, she went back to school to get her certificate a second time. 

“I work hard for myself. Not for anyone else to say, ‘Great job, you did this.’ If I get that along the way, that’s great. That’s an extra added bonus for me, but it’s all for me,” she said. “It’s for me to say, ‘I did this because I wanted to, and because I knew I could, and it was something I didn’t have to do.’” 

While working toward her second certificate, she landed a job at a nonprofit that helps individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  

Paying it Forward 

“Since I’ve had such success, I wish more people would reach out or seek help,” Denise said. “I know how they’re feeling. It’s very embarrassing. It’s very degrading.”  

She now shares that student perspective back at San Diego Council on Literacy as a member of its board of directors. 

And between serving on the board and working full time, Denise is helping Brenden prepare for graduation in June and his next steps. Unlike when she graduated high school, Brenden has a clear plan for a career in criminal justice and law enforcement. 

“To have these successes for him and for myself, it’s relieving. It’s been a lot of hard work. It’s been a lot of heartache and crying and pushing and, ‘I don’t want to do this’ and, ‘this sucks.’ A lot of negativity and things happening. But this is the reward,” Denise said.