Single mother perseveres to earn law degree
by Roy Wenzl, Wichita Eagle
Latina Alston is not yet 30. She has three children out of wedlock with three fathers, two of whom have not helped much with the kids. She raised the children in poverty all their lives.
That’s about to change.
Latina’s story goes beyond absent fathers, food stamps and welfare checks.
People at the Wichita Bar Association know that of their 1,175 members, only eight are African-American — the newest member being Latina.
Friends know what bothers her most: That she and her kids have lived off her mother, Dee Alston, a 57-year-old janitor at Botanica who earns $17,000 a year.
Friends also know that Latina studied her schoolbooks until she could barely see.
They know that it irks her that thousands of young black women face the same poverty, the same struggle with failure, exhaustion and low self-esteem that she knows so well.
And they know that few people ever go to the lengths she does to help other people.
The faculty at Washburn University’s School of Law know that the failure rate of students there is 10 to 12 percent after the first year.
And they know that Latina got through law school with no regular baby sitter, no other regular support, little money, huge debt and two children hanging onto her most of the way.
When she graduated in May 2007, she was four months pregnant with her third child.
Earlier this month, as Sedgwick County’s newest assistant public defender, she helped clear a Wichita man of charges that could have put him in prison for years. He was innocent, she said.
Eight days before Christmas, she closed on a house that she will move into with her children — and her mother.
It’s payback time.
In July 2004, days before she went to law school in Topeka, Latina ran a stop sign in Wichita and was pulled over. The officer quickly determined two things: She had no insurance, and this was her third moving violation in a short time.
“You could be facing jail time,” the officer told her.
Latina was shocked. Washburn, hearing she was in jail, unable to go to class, would kick her out.
She was already in debt $18,000 for the loans she’d taken to get her business degree from Wichita State University. She lived with her children, ages 8 and 2, in her mother’s tiny house near 13th Street and I-135.
Latina broke down crying. She did not intend that her boss at her part-time job would find out about her legal trouble.
But her boss did.
An offer of help
Cynthia Berner Harris is the director of Wichita’s public libraries. Latina worked for her at the main branch downtown.
She knew that Latina, in spite of her poverty, in spite of raising two children, was a regular volunteer at the Lord’s Diner. She knew that Latina had volunteered 5,000 hours at Botanica, where her mother worked. She knew Latina worked for Americorps, too, and that she planned to go to law school.
Berner Harris also knew a story Latina’s mother likes to tell:
In May 1997, Latina, age 17, was scheduled to give a brief address at the Northwest High School graduation; she was a class salutatorian. But on the day of graduation, Latina delivered Motia — or “Tia” — her first child.
Against doctors’ orders, Latina got out of bed and showed up at the ceremony to deliver a short salutatorian speech.
By then, school officials, hearing she’d given birth that day, had canceled her speech. But she walked and accepted her diploma.
Berner Harris, hearing about Latina’s legal disaster, pulled her aside.
“I knew how utterly frazzled she was,” Berner Harris said later.”… She was almost falling asleep on her feet trying to keep things together. That’s probably why she got stopped for running a stop sign.
“This is a great young woman,” Berner Harris said at the time. “… There was no way I could live with myself if I didn’t help.”
So Berner Harris paid Latina’s traffic fine, bought her car insurance and told Latina to talk to the people in court.
Latina went to City Hall expecting to see her life fall apart.
She approached the city prosecutor handling her case, Gwendolyn Horsch, a graduate of Washburn University’s School of Law.
Latina told her what had happened, and how this traffic violation could derail her law school plans. She already had the paperwork in hand, paying the fine and the insurance.
Horsch looked at this, and saw something else:
“She didn’t make excuses,” Horsch said at the time.
Horsch took Latina up the hall and found a judge, Richard Shull — another Washburn graduate.
Horsch explained the situation.
“You want to become a lawyer?” Shull joked. “Why would you want to ruin your life like that?”
Then he signed the papers and wished her good luck.
Latina walked to the elevator, stunned.
Horsch got on the elevator with her.
“OK,” the prosecutor said. “Here’s how you get through the first year of law school…”
The first year
In her first year at Washburn, in 2004, Latina cried in class all the time, sobbing quietly while she studied torts, contract law, criminal procedure.
At home, she was potty training her son, Malcolm. She studied for hours every night with Malcolm and Tia vying for her attention. Every day was a mad rush, getting Tia to school, getting Malcolm to day care, getting to class, studying at night, preparing meals, falling into bed dead tired.
The teachers had warned her that the first year breaks a lot of people.
Faculty members say that to survive a typical law school semester of 15 credit hours, students must study four hours a week per credit; 15 hours means 60 hours of studying a week.
Latina struggled. She nearly failed a writing exam that would have sent her packing had she not passed.
During spring break, in March 2005, she had an emotional meltdown.
Her car broke down. She spent $600 fixing it, and then collapsed.
When classes resumed, she failed to get out of bed. Stress, welfare, food stamps, guilt over living off her mother, and relentless study had wrecked her health.
For two days, she took her kids to school and day care, but went back to bed instead of class. She was so depressed she could barely move.
Berner Harris saved her again, by sending $500.
And then the phone rang.
It was another black student. There were only 12 in the first-year class.
Are you OK? Why aren’t you in class? Can I help you study? Do you need anything?
Get your butt out of bed. And get back to class.
“At Washburn, the black students felt isolated, alone, except that we thought the white faculty and students were watching us, maybe waiting for us to fail,” Latina said later. “So we’d pretty much made a vow that none of us were going to fail…. If I had not gotten up on my own, I think the others would have come in and dragged me out with their hands.”
Her fellow black students pleaded with her not to let them down.
She got out of bed.
In early June Latina’s car broke down again. She was crying in class again, facing failure. She needed a 2.0 GPA or she would wash out.
She passed. Barely.
She hung on, through the second year.
Then the third.
The other black students helped her, as she helped them.
All 12 graduated.
By the time she got her diploma in May 2007, Latina had made one of those mistakes she admits she’s prone to. When she slipped into her cap and gown, she was four months pregnant, still unmarried.
Dylan Wharton-Alston, her third child, was born in October 2007.
“I guess I have a habit of meeting men who I think care about me and don’t really,” she said later.
Dylan’s father would be the only one of the three to take full responsibility for his child, sharing custody, bearing his full share of the costs of raising his son.
But Latina was single, and for the next four months she studied to pass the bar exam, often with three children clinging to her, asking for help, pleading for attention.
Helping her study, and cheering her on, were her African-American classmates.
She passed the Kansas bar in February 2008.
Latina’s first case
Earlier this month, in Judge Ben Burgess’ fifth-floor courtroom at the Sedgwick County Courthouse, a sheriff’s deputy escorted in a handcuffed man, Gary Ingram, a 25-year old defendant with tattoos on his forearms.
Each day of the trial, the deputy would take off the handcuffs and watch as Ingram put on a suit jacket borrowed from the chief public defender, Steve Osburn, one of Ingram’s defense attorneys.
Ingram would sit beside Osburn, and his other public defender, Latina Alston. He faced four criminal counts.
This case was Latina’s first, and it was shameful, she said.
“I know you probably hear this all the time from public defenders, that this guy is innocent,” she said one day.
“But this guy really is innocent… he never should have been charged, and he’s already spent six months in jail for something he didn’t do. We’re going to win this case.”
One day later, with Osburn doing most of the work, they did win; a jury acquitted him.
The charges against Ingram, including aggravated robbery, would have put him in prison for years.
“We couldn’t give him back his six months, but we gave him his freedom,” Latina said.
As Sedgwick County’s newest public defender, Latina earns $45,000 a year.
She owes more than $100,000 in student loans.
Her boss, Osburn, hearing her life story for the first time last week, expressed amazement that she got through law school.
“I went to Washburn, too, and I had kids, but I had a wife… I had help. I can’t imagine what it was like, what she did.”
He said Latina hadn’t told him how hard it was for her to get through.
Paying others back
After she came home from law school last year, Latina tried to pay back Berner Harris, the library director. Berner Harris refused to accept anything.
“The thing that sticks out to me about her is that even with the way her life turned out, she’s never surrendered to the temptation to be a victim,” Berner Harris said. “She never told many people what she was up against.
“And she was always looking for how to make the world a better place for other people. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, she went down there twice and spent time helping people rebuild homes.”
In the 19 months since she returned to Wichita, Latina has slept every night in one bedroom with her children.
The room is at her mother’s house, the same tiny, two-bedroom dwelling where Latina grew up. There are holes in the floor where rodents come in; the windows let in winter chill; a tree is growing through the back of the house.
But last week Latina signed the papers on a Habitat for Humanity house that she qualified for and helped build.
In that house, Latina has given her mother a room to herself; Latina will sleep on the living room couch.
Dee Alston raised four children, four stepchildren, nine grandchildren. Not all of the children ended up on welfare like Latina, but Dee helped them all.
“She doesn’t have to pay me back,” Dee said last week. “All I did was what all mothers would do. Well… maybe not all. But most.”
They closed on the house on Wednesday.
“My mother has no retirement, no savings,” Latina said last week. “She’s given her whole life away, to her children, to her grandchildren. So yeah, she gets a room in the new house.”
In that house this Thursday, the Alston family will celebrate Christmas.