Clarissa Nickerson grew up mostly in local foster homes, moving her stuff from place to place in garbage bags, and became a mom at age 16.
Now, Nickerson recently graduated with a bachelor's degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago, will soon start a master's program in legal studies and plans to be a lawyer by the time she turns 30.
The mother of four is a paralegal and continues to work toward goals she's set. She strives to give her kids everything they need, and protect them from adult problems.
"Their mom was a statistic," she said. "Now, I'm not. I won't be. That makes me really happy. ... It feels good to not be the person everyone thought you were going to be."
Nickerson, who will be 27 this month, has overcome a lot, but she said she's learned from even the toughest situations.
"Then, it was hard," she said. "Now, I'm glad I experienced some of that stuff."
She had some bad experiences in foster homes — one foster mom kept the food under lock and key, then accused her of being a thief when she took some; another would kick her out of the house from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day in the summer.
As she grew up, some people who shared her skin color made fun of her dark skin tone, calling her names.
When she got pregnant at age 15, she felt isolated and alone. But knowing she'd have a son was the turning point of her life, she said.
"I knew he was the only person I had, and I was the only person he had," she said. She decided to do everything she could to make their lives better.
Nickerson has drawn support from various adults in her life, and had help along the way from the Cunningham Children's Home Independent Living Program, which she joined at age 16 after her son was born. She's found mentors in former judge Jack DeLaMar, Champaign Centennial High School teacher Greg Stock and Angie Bertauski-Pierce, who works at Cunningham Children's Home.
DeLaMar was Nickerson's attorney as part of his duties as attorney for Champaign County Court-Appointed Special Advocates for Children, when it was her guardian ad litem.
"She's basically a very strong individual who got to a critical point where it was make or break," DeLaMar said. And even though she struggled, as does just about every child who ends up in family court, she's been able to realize her own potential and value.
"She just realized that she was a very capable person, a very important person, and she deserved to be successful," he said. "She made it happen."
Nickerson called her recent graduation, when she walked across the stage at Roosevelt's Auditorium Theatre in Chicago in December, "probably the best moment of my life, ever."
In January, she'll enroll in a master's program in legal studies at Webster University in St. Louis and hopes to attend St. Louis University's law school, which allows for part-time students. She hopes to take the bar in Missouri but eventually practice in Champaign. She currently lives in Missouri to attend school there.
Stock, who was her dean at Centennial, said he remembers noticing Nickerson's drive when she was there, although he knows her life could have gone much differently.
"She just has this ambition," Stock said. "She always has had an ambition to do better for herself and pull herself out of this life she was born into."
She also has an ability to not get sidetracked when she's working toward a goal, he said.
"When you grow up in those chaotic situations, I think it's really easy to get sidetracked, find excuses not to do well or kind of give up," Stock said. "Her perseverance has really brought her where she is."
Nickerson is married now, and her children are Jakaiece, 10, Karinadee, 7, Sathais, 6, and Cassiauna, 1.
Nickerson loves to read and talk to her kids, and tries to do with them things she wanted to do as a child, but couldn't. They've been to every children's museum in the Midwest and love to go to zoos. Her next goal is to get passports for the whole family and travel abroad.
While Nickerson knew how to cook — out of necessity — when she was 8, she doesn't try to pass on that skill or make her children bear adult burdens.
"I want my kids to be on the floor, putting together puzzles," she said, or playing in the back yard.
She has civil relationships with their fathers, she said, and has created her own family, including those who aren't related to her but have supported her every day.
"I never knew what a family was like," she said.
When she's a lawyer, she hopes to eventually practice in Champaign, with the goal of making the law less scary for people and helping them understand the consequences of their circumstances.
"I spent my life in court hearings," she said. "The law can be on your side if you want it to be."
DeLaMar said he's proud of Nickerson's accomplishments and goals for the future.
"The fact that she wants to be an attorney is kind of neat because it will put her in a position where she can positively affect other people's lives, hopefully," he said, because she has such "invaluable insights and perspective."
"That's special but, believe me, I would just be as thrilled and proud of Clarissa in whatever she chose to do because she's obviously going to do it extremely well," he said.
Bertauski-Pierce, who is associate director of the Independent Living Opportunity and Transitional Living programs at Cunningham Children's Home, knew Nickerson through Nickerson's sister, who was a resident at Cunningham. She also worked with Nickerson when she joined the home's independent living program as a teenage mom.
At that time, Bertauski-Pierce said Nickerson was proud to be a mom, and had defined goals for her life.
"I think the key with Clarissa (is), she has such resiliency about her," Bertauski-Pierce said. "You feel that positive energy when you meet with her, when you talk to her. It makes you want to help her because you see that she's so goal-driven."
Bertauski-Pierce said Nickerson has spoken to other young moms at Cunningham about her experiences, giving them advice on child care and continuing their educations.
"Her enthusiasm is contagious," Bertauski-Pierce said, and she's an inspiration for her and other social workers at Cunningham.
"We don't always hear the best stories or see the best outcomes," she said. "Clarissa's been a success and gives back to others. She motivates us to keep going."