United Way
of Massachusetts Bay
and Merrimack Valley

July 11, 2014

Rising Above

Sheila Reyes, MLH Scholar and United Way intern, is on the fast-track to a good life.  It wasn’t always easy, though.

When Sheila Reyes was a high school student in Roxbury she lost three friends to violence in three years. One friend a year–gone. She knows as well as anyone the stakes facing a young person when they’re flanked on all sides by danger. She also knows what it takes to rise above it all. She only has to look to her mother and her sister.

Sheila’s mother moved from Puerto Rico to the U.S. at a young age, all by herself, and lived with her two cousins. The language barrier was steep. She had no parents and virtually no support network. And arthritis was setting in. But she persevered, crafted a life for herself as a cosmetologist, and brought two girls into the world who would build on the example she set.

As a high schooler, though, Sheila struggled. The threatening external forces were marshaling around her and she was teetering. But through supportive friends and, in particular, the Hyde Square Task Force, a United Way partner and a community organization dedicated to giving youth and adults the skills to advance in school and their careers, she saw glimpses of a bright future.

“They helped me get my head straight,” Sheila says. “I began to think about the future and educated myself about college and what the process was like to apply.”

Using the mentorship and resources available to her through Hyde Square, she began researching college, specifically attaining scholarships. Because of the agency’s United Way connection, Sheila was eligible for the Marian L. Heard scholarship, an annual college award provided to lower-income young people, many of whom will be the first in their family to attend college. So she applied. And she got it. Today, she is a student at Boston College, majoring in sociology, an intern with United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley and thinking about a future in law school.

“I focused on not being a number,” she said. “I do this for the people who weren’t able to.”
The lesson she’s learned throughout her experience is a simple one: there’s not just one path to rise above. Her mother pursued a trade. Her sister, who flirted with a collegiate track, realized it wasn’t for her and became a dental assistant.

“My family has shown that it’s okay to take a different path,” Sheila says. “You don’t have to go to college to be successful.”

It is a takeaway that will certainly come into play when she finds herself working in the community, working with people. It is her ultimate goal; helping others, especially those coming from similar situations, realize that there are many, many different ladders out of the darkness.

“When people look at my community all they see is violence and drop-out rates,” she says. “But there are people that come from places like I have and they’ve been successful. They rose above it.”​