School nurse helps teen mother reach college
ST. PAUL — School nurse Kathleen Hook remembers exactly the day she wanted to bring a student home with her.
Then-11th-grader La'Shay Ester walked into her office crying and holding what looked like a 20-pound calculus book. The 16-year-old was homeless and very pregnant.
Hook had given Ester food, and helped with her prenatal needs.
But it wasn't enough, Hook said. She could see the 5-foot-tall teen was underweight and tired from working 40 hours a week at Burger King while keeping up with school.
Hook, 41, hugged Ester — and broke the traditional barrier between staff and students.
"She just fell apart," Hook said. "She sat down in the chair and she didn't let go."
Hook, who is married with two school-age children, moved Ester to her Eagan house last fall — becoming the girl's legal guardian shortly after Ester gave birth to her son.
With Hook's support, Ester was accepted into St. Catherine University in St. Paul, which she will attend this fall on a need-based scholarship. Ester, now 18, also walked in the Eagan High School graduation after completing school early.
Ester said she owes it all to Hook, the school's nurse.
"I wouldn't have made it without her," she said.
It surprised Ester when Hook invited her to move in. It felt "like someone loves me, someone cares," the teen said, with tears running down her cheeks.
Hook's husband, 10-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son supported bringing Ester home. But the Advertisement Quantcast reaction at school was different. Some staff even ostracized her at first, she said.
"It was mixed, but the only thing that mattered for me was that I had the principal's support," Hook said. Soon, the school community began helping Ester, too.
They donated food, a car seat and other items.
"If she needed something, it would just show up in my office," Hook said.
Today, Ester is a cashier at Sam's Club in Apple Valley. She lives with her son, Santana, at Hook's house but plans to get an apartment soon. She was able to save enough money to buy a car. But she still struggles to help support her mother, brothers and sister with money and rides.
"People say, 'Well, what if this doesn't work out? What if she doesn't show up to college?'" Hook said. "If anything — this kid knows she has someone who cares about her."
Ester's boss described her as a "great example" to others and credited her strength.
"You can see that go-get attitude that's gotten her to this place," said Jennifer Mercil, store manager. "That's why she's been successful and able to overcome so much, I think."
Ester said she never really knew what having a mother was like until she met Hook.
At age 12, Ester moved to Minnesota to be with her biological mother, who left her and her younger brother with relatives eight years earlier in Detroit. Ester's mother became a teen mom at age 14.
Attempts to reach her mother were unsuccessful.
For a year, Ester lived in St. Paul with her two younger brothers and her mom. In eighth grade, the family moved to Eagan, where she attended Dakota Hills Middle School.
"All I remember is not wanting to move," said Ester. She wanted to continue going to school with her friends, she said.
The move to Minnesota had been difficult enough, she said. Minnesota was a cultural shock for Ester compared to Detroit — a city that is predominantly black. The suburbs had even fewer minorities.
"There were a few black people there that talked to me," Ester said.
At home, she said, her mother was more like a "friend" to her than a parent.
"I honestly don't think me and my mom ever got along," she said.
By the summer of ninth grade, Ester's mom had her fourth child. And Ester — who already was taking care of her brothers — worried she would have to parent a baby too, she said.
But two years later, Ester became a teen mom.
"What the heck am I going to do?" she thought.
The baby's father and Ester's mother wanted her to have an abortion, she said. But her great-aunt, who raised her in Detroit, helped persuade her to have the baby.
That's when Hook stepped into her life.
"She was nice," Ester said.
Hook would give Ester crackers and juice when she was hungry in school. She would let Ester lie down in her office if she needed to rest. She even stood up for Ester when she missed a couple days of school because she was fatigued from the pregnancy.
By December of 2008, Ester was four months pregnant, estranged from her family and living with a friend from school, she said.
Hook helped Ester find health insurance, sign up for free school lunch and register for Women, Infants and Children, a federal program offered through the state for low-income pregnant and postpartum women and children who are at a nutritional risk.
Ester gave birth to son Santana on April 28, 2009.
After his birth, she left her friend's house and moved back with her family. But the home was packed with four children, three adults and a baby. Ester struggled to find reliable day care.
She began staying home from school to care for her son, Hook said.
But she managed to earn a B in her contemporary literature class, her teacher Karen Keller said. As a student, she said Ester was quiet, observant and mature.
"She probably would have ended up with an A — had she had more time to do her schoolwork," Keller said. "She just worries about putting the burden on other people."
Hook helped Ester find a Dakota County grant to pay for child care. She also found a day care provider that agreed to watch Santana while the grant was being approved.
Every day, Hook drove Ester to and from the day care and school.
But arguments between Ester and her mother continued.
One night, Ester's mom woke her up at midnight. The two began to argue. Her mother asked her to leave for a while.
Hook said she and Ester had suspected that day would come.
"We were talking about it," Hook said. "When it happens, it happens," she told Ester.
Once she moved in with Hook, Ester was hit with more bad news. Her son was diagnosed with severe asthma and several allergies.
He was in and out of the hospital three times during Ester's senior year. The longest stay was for 16 days.
"It was scary for me, as a nurse," Hook said.
Santana uses a nebulizer 30 minutes a day to control his disease, she said. When he has an asthma attack, his treatments can increase to 30 minutes every four hours.
"As a teen parent, she's pretty tuned into him," Hook said.
But although she's mature, Ester is still a teenager.
That was evident when Ester was looking to buy a car, Hook said. The teen wanted to buy a red, two-door Honda Accord Coupe. "What about the car seat?" Hook asked her.
So the two decided on a red, four-door Kia.
They also disagreed on whether Santana would sleep in a portable crib. Hook suggested he sleep in the crib. But Ester insisted on him sleeping with her in bed.
So the crib turned into a giant laundry hamper.
"I had to let stuff go," Hook said. "I thought I would offer solutions and she would just embrace them. Everything I offer isn't going to be embraced with a smile."
Back at school, Ester didn't meet the attendance requirements or credits to graduate. She appealed the decision to a school committee of teachers, administrators and other staff members, who eventually overturned the decision.
Ester graduated in March, a trimester earlier than her classmates.
The next step for Ester was college, Hook said.
Ester always wanted to go to college, but she saw herself at a two-year school, she said. Hook knew Ester could do more. She pushed her to apply to a four-year university.
"In my mind, that's what moms do, they challenge you," Hook said.
Hook suggested Ester apply to St. Kate's, where she got her degree. Hook e-mailed the admissions office at the university to explain Ester's situation before she applied.
Officials at the all-girls private school immediately wanted to meet Ester.
For the application, she received recommendations from her high school principal, Polly Reikowski, and her economics teacher, Mitchell Snobeck.
Keller helped Ester with an essay about her struggles — a story that was tough to write. "It's awkward to have it out there for other people to see and know about," Keller said.
Ester said she didn't think she would get into college. But she did and plans to study forensic nursing. She also is on a waiting list for family housing on the university's St. Paul campus.
Hook considers herself simply the "launch pad" for Ester.
"What I could offer her is a place to stay," she said. "There must be something in this kid that is inspired for greatness — because we can't all be having the same delusion."