Redeeming Moses

Published October 1, 2004

Few people have fallen as low as Ruth Holland and her 13-year-old son Moses Dillehay.

When Ruth’s first husband died several years ago, her older son Pharaoh didn’t have any good male role models in their Queens neighborhood, so she let him move in with a friend, a former coach, on Long Island.

Pharaoh’s move, though, meant Ruth had to support two households, since she had to pay part of Pharaoh’s living expenses on Long Island. With only her deceased husband’s Social Security benefits as income, in April 1999 her budget broke. She and her younger son Moses were evicted, and they moved into a mouse-infested shelter in Harlem.

For the next month or so they traveled back to their old apartment to check for mail, where one day they found a letter from the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF).

A few months earlier they had seen a commercial advertising the opportunity to receive a private scholarship at the school of their choice. Ruth applied, but with all of the others who had applied, she knew Moses’ chances were slim at best.

Moses, she now learned, had been selected in the CSF lottery. CSF would pay up to 75 percent of Moses’ tuition at the school of her choice.

Still living in the shelter, she filled out the paperwork and began shopping for a school. Their eviction had been especially hard on Moses, who knew only Queens as home, so she sent him to St. Peter Claver School, a nonsectarian school in Queens. With an eye on eventually getting a college degree, she also began taking GED classes.

St. Peter Claver was a tremendous change of environment for Moses, who was in third grade at the time. He traded his sneakers and t-shirt for dress shoes and a shirt and tie. Moral instruction was a daily part of his classes. At St. Peter Claver he couldn’t get away with ignoring the rules.

By this time, Ruth and Moses were living in a shelter in mid-town Manhattan. For a year they got up at 5:30 a.m. so they could take the R train to school. Moses struggled to keep up with this schedule and living in a shelter, and he wound up having to repeat third grade.

After moving to a Bronx apartment in 2001, Ruth transferred her son to St. Martin of Tours School, a Catholic school in the Bronx. Moses attended there, continuing to struggle, until Ruth transferred him to Grace Lutheran Elementary School, another religious school in the Bronx. Moses will be in seventh grade, but he’s going to spend the first quarter reviewing the material from sixth grade to make sure he’s up to speed.

These past five years have been a real roller coaster for Ruth and Moses. Letting her son Pharaoh go live with his coach was tough. Getting evicted was even tougher–she’d never before lived with mice or waterbugs. And private school has not been the silver bullet she expected.

Despite all these hardships, Ruth doesn’t regret any of it. In her view, Moses’ scholarship has given him–and her, too–“an opportunity to do something with yourself.” It’s too soon to tell if Moses will succeed in his dream of becoming a veterinarian, or if Ruth will finish her college degree. They both have more mountains to climb, but now they have hope, and a fighting chance.

M. Royce Van Tassell ([email protected]) is executive director of Education Excellence Utah.