Jamie Dodge’s childhood memories include seeing her mom experience vivid hallucinations brought on by a combination of drugs and alcohol.
During a brief stay with relatives in Chicago while she was just 6 years old, Jamie heard gunshots outside their apartment and even saw a man holding a gun on his way to shoot somebody.
“I’ve been through it all as a kid,” she said. “Things a 5-year-old should never experience—ever—I’ve seen.”
With her father not involved in her life and her mother unable to care for her three children, Jamie helped raise her brother and sister, even if it meant going to school only a couple of days a week. "I was never there. I was always at home taking care of my siblings,” she said.
When Jamie was 10, a relative reported her mom’s Coon Rapids, Minn., home—littered with trash, rotten food and even feces— o social services, and the children were removed.
The three kids stayed with their grandparents before being placed with foster family Chuck and Claire Harmston, who lived in Anoka, Minn., before moving in 2001 to Menomonie. The Harmstons adopted Jamie and her siblings, plus three other children, and had five of their own biological children.
Growing up in a home with 10 siblings, Jamie often helped brothers and sisters learn to read, aided them with schoolwork and attended their activities.
“People always just told me I have this insane connection with kids that most people don’t have,” she said.
Dodge, now 23, drew from those life experiences and was inspired by them to become an early childhood educator. On Friday she’s graduating with her associate degree from Chippewa Valley Technical College and plans to begin taking online classes in spring 2013 from UW-River Falls for her bachelor’s degree in the same major.
A few times in her marriage and family class, Jamie would talk about her upbringing, which contrasted with experiences of her classmates, who were almost entirely from white, middle-class, nuclear families. “She was able to understand a lot of the challenges faced by other groups,” CVTC sociology instructor Kristi Hagen said.
Jamie used her tough childhood as an asset and inspiration in her education.
“Many of these challenges would undermine a student’s performance, but she really pulled things together and sees education as her stepping stone, and she’s committed to it,” Hagen said.
Jamie maintained a perfect 4.0 grade-point average during her year at CVTC and three of the four years she attended UW-Stout.
She came to CVTC a year ago after being unable to advance in Stout’s program because of her academic Achilles’s heel—testing. During her first try at the Praxis exam—a prerequisite to student teaching—she became light-headed and almost fainted. In seven tries she’s failed by as few as a couple of points. This summer she’s taking it for the eighth time.
Jamie was diagnosed at UW-Stout with severe test anxiety and a learning disability. That earned her some accommodations, such as audio textbooks and being allowed to take tests alone instead of in a classroom.
Instead of becoming discouraged by tests, she’s facing them and working harder in the classroom. “She has an amazing amount of motivation,” said instructor Julie Lorenz, who taught Dodge in several early childhood education courses.
In addition to doing coursework, Dodge also volunteered for activities, including a puppet show that toured several Minnesota schools last week.
Jamie will be the first student to get the full associate degree in early childhood education in just one year at CVTC, Lorenz said, adding that there have been others who transferred in from UW System schools with credits.
After graduation, Jamie plans to run an in-home day care at her new home in Arcadia. One of her first students will be her first child, a girl, due in September.
Married to her high school sweetheart, Ben Dodge, Jamie hopes to someday get her master’s degree and open a child care center in Arcadia.
Her mother has avoided substance abuse in the years since she gave up custody of her children. Jamie now speaks with her a couple of times a week on the phone and visits a few times a year.
Reprinted with permission from the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram.