Kathleen’s Story

Kathleen’s Story: Learning Independence

Kathleen Terry bears a tattoo on her left forearm that reminds her of who she is and how far she’s come in recent years.

The words, she said, have come to symbolize how she strives to live her life – with “Strong Love.”

Kathleen was 18 years old and just four months shy of her high school graduation when she made the decision to drop out. The stress of struggling with a learning disability, bullying and other unresolved trauma had become too much, she said, and though she loved school, she didn’t know what else to do.

“I was trying to run from everything,” she said.

She moved away from her family and spent several years in a bad relationship before returning to the area and reconnecting with her parents. Kathleen, now 26, took community classes in fits and starts, but it wasn’t until she began working with Disability Network Southwest Michigan that she was able to fully explore who she was and find a path forward.

“They made me feel like I can open up more about my disability with others, and that I’m not the only person with a disability,” she said. “I can work. I can do what other people do.”

Through the agency’s Independent Living Services program, funded in part by United Way BCKR, Kathleen began working closely with Independent Living Specialist Leona Carter last December. She received training in self-advocacy and awareness, financial budgeting and literacy, employment readiness and soft skills.

“She made strides in really understanding who she is, what she wants to do and what’s going to be supportive to that,” Carter said. “With the program, one of the things that we do is disability awareness. Once a student understands where they aren’t strong, they are good at knowing how to connect with supports.”

Kathleen, for example, knows that math isn’t a strength for her, but learned that using a calculator when she grocery shops will help her stay on budget, Carter said. “She’s accurate every time.”

“She was motivated,” she added. “That motivation helped her to really soar and get to where she’s at now.”

Kathleen smiles shyly when she talks about what her life is like now. She has a job, a fiancée, and is working toward her GED. She taught herself how to cook, and lives independently of her parents, with whom she has a good relationship.

“I’m taking it day by day, learning how to live on my own and take care of my own responsibilities,” she said.

The words tattooed on her left arm – “Strong Love” – continue to help keep her grounded, and it’s a message she wants to share with others.

“It’s from a poem I wrote when I finally got myself together, and it basically states that no matter what you go through, you have to stay strong to yourself with the ones that love you,” Kathleen said. “I found music that I love, poetry that I love and surrounded myself with family and friends that helped me feel like I wasn’t alone, and that everything would be OK.”


Learn more about United Way’s strategies and partnerships in the area of basic needs, and find out how you can get involved. When you support United Way, you help organizations like Disability Network provide life-changing supports for people in our community.