The Gazette – by  Debbie Kelley


Shivering while sleeping wasn’t the worst thing about being homeless, according to Va Leenia West.

What West, 30, truly dreaded was setting up the family’s tent every night and taking it down every morning.

“People usually don’t have to build their houses every day,” West said.

And then there were the daily bus trips. West, her husband and their 7-year-old son carried their belongings on a city bus every day, including sleeping bags and pillows, to a safe storage space before heading off to school and work.

“It was super embarrassing. You could tell we were homeless,” West said, adding that she feared being kicked off the bus for paying for three seats but taking up at least six with their possessions.

That never happened, and, after months of having no place to live last year, the family’s series of misfortunes began to turn around.

For her grit and determination to better her life, West has been named the 2017 recipient of a $5,000 national scholarship from the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools.

West will be presented with the Christopher J. Eaton Scholarship next Friday in Palm Springs, Calif., during the organization’s annual conference.

The money will pay for about half of her education at Pima Medical Institute, a family- and employee-owned school with 16 campuses, including one in Colorado Springs.

West obtained loans and started the registered medical assistant program last August, when her family was homeless. She will graduate April 28.

“It’s been exciting to see the transformation of Va Leenia,” said Colorado Springs campus director Tara Dailey. “Pima has brought the opportunity for a future of a stable career in the health care field. I have high hopes for her to get a job really quickly.”

West didn’t know she was being considered for the award. Faculty and staff at the school submitted the nomination.

“I was shocked,” she said of having been selected over 60 other nominees from around the country.

Pima is the third college West has attended, but she said she didn’t do well at the others. She did became a certified nursing assistant and has been working nights at a local care facility. But she wants a better job.

“I don’t mind paperwork, scheduling patients, answering phones, and I love drawing blood and giving shots,” she said.

A Colorado Springs native and graduate of Palmer High School, West married her high school sweetheart almost 10 years ago. The couple moved back to Colorado Springs from North Carolina last year after her husband got out of the Navy. The family lived with West’s mom for awhile, until she moved.

“We thought we’d be OK. We had money, jobs, income,” West said.

But the family had a hard time finding a place to rent, she said. West said a landlord absconded with $800 they had saved for the application fee and deposit on an apartment.

They lived in a motel for two months and tried to stay at the local homeless shelter but couldn’t because West works a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift so she could attend classes in the day. So they bought a tent and started camping south of downtown.

“My kid absolutely hates walking now,” West said.

In recent months, the family has been renting a 100-square-foot room in a house. They also obtained a car and a cellphone.

“It’s been inspiring to see them pull themselves up,” Dailey said. “A lot of people would have given up.”

Pima has a food bank for students, which West and her family have used. They also received food from fellow students.

West’s husband attends Pikes Peak Community College and aspires to become a physician’s assistant.

The couple hopes to buy a house.

“I can’t wait for my medical assistant job to be paying the mortgage,” West said.

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