December 24, 2016
MANCHESTER — Vonetta Upshaw says her experiences with homelessness and sex trafficking resulted from teenage rebellion and naivety. Looking back, Upshaw says she has no regrets as she’s positioned herself to help those in similar circumstances.
Thirteen classes stand between Upshaw and an associate’s degree in social work from Manchester Community College. This is not Upshaw’s first or second attempt at community college, but it’s where she found success.
Over the past month, the Vernon resident received an SBM Charitable Foundation scholarship and a Fund a Dream scholarship. She was also promoted to a full-time position as a processing clerk for the U.S. Postal Service.
MCC has offered Upshaw numerous resources — a supportive network she says would have helped when she became homeless at 16 years old.
Upshaw lived on friends’ couches and in abandoned buildings while a homeless teenager in Hartford.
“It was rough,” she says of those years, “but I made it through.”
Upshaw, 38, was born in Orlando, Florida, and given to her grandparents at birth. She was raised by them in Hartford and later Bloomfield.
Upshaw’s grandparents raised her in a strict and controlling manner, she says. She attended Weaver High School in Hartford and Bloomfield High School but was expelled from both schools.
It wasn’t until her teen years when Upshaw asked about and met her mother — an encounter that was not in her best interest in hindsight, she says.
In 2001, Upshaw received a high school diploma from the Urban League of Greater Hartford.
Hard times led Upshaw to become involved in sex trafficking during her early 20s. At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal, she says.
Years later, Upshaw says, she matured and began to consider leading a different life, one that included education.
“I started to believe there has to be something more to life than this,” she says. “I began thinking, ‘maybe I should go to school.’”
Then living in Florida, Upshaw took a chance and enrolled at Seminole Community College in Sanford, Florida. She didn’t feel like she belonged and dropped out, she says.
She eventually returned to Connecticut, and enrolled in several courses at Capital Community College that began her interest in social work. The curriculum dealt with issues she juggled in her earlier life, she says, and she finally felt inspired to learn.
However, the school wasn’t the right fit, she says, and she dropped out.
Upshaw then discovered MCC’s social work program and enrolled, intending to try the school for one semester.
After joining a mentoring program titled “Sister-2-Sister,” Upshaw says, she found support through group discussions in which she shared her goals and learned how to balance work with school.
T.J. Barber, the school’s director of student activities, began mentoring Upshaw. His guidance, she says, encourages her to continue growing.
“I just felt like at that time I didn’t have anybody I could talk to,” Upshaw says “The support system at MCC makes it much easier.”
Barber calls Upshaw a “tremendous” and “persistent” student because she is intent on building her skills. He says she has exhausted the school’s resources and has received a great return on her investment.
“I count her as one of our successes because she gets it,” Barber says. “She gets we are here to help her, and she isn’t afraid to ask for help.”
Upshaw met Abdul-Rahmaan Muhammad while volunteering for Ice Cream for a Dream, a local ice cream truck that asks children to list their dreams before receiving a free treat.
The two discussed her goal of opening a safe house for sex-trafficking victims. Muhammad connected her with his wife, Dayeshell, the CEO of Hartford’s My People Clinical Services LLC.
Muhammad’s scheduled Upshaw for a speaking engagement at the Connecticut Science Center, where she warned kids about the dangers of sex trafficking.
A contract with the Hartford Police Department is also in the works, she says, adding she would possibly ride along with officers tending to reported sex-trafficking incidents. Upshaw would assist the officers serving as an advocate for those looking to escape their circumstances.
She expects to graduate from MCC this spring, a school she considers “the best community college in Connecticut.” She plans to attend Springfield College or Central Connecticut State University to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work.
Upshaw says she hopes to develop several safe houses where someday, men and women looking to rid their lives of sex trafficking can find refuge and counseling.
She says the shame associated with this crime prevents victims, most without options, from seeking help.
“I was naïve at times and had fallen into things I shouldn’t have,” Upshaw says. “Now at this age, I don’t regret anything. I really want these places to feel safe and comfortable.”