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Four years ago, Heather Dunnaway, now 17, never thought she get to wear a cap and gown.

For the majority of her life, Dunnaway family home was at various Spartanburg motels places where she and her siblings often were surrounded by illicit activity and where their childhoods involved bullying and periods of loneliness.

As a teenager living at a motel, Dunnaway would start her day by waking up before sunrise to catch the bus to Spartanburg High School, go to class and then ride the bus back to the motel after school.

The motel was always the first bus stop in the mornings and the last stop in the afternoons so classmates wouldn tease Dunnaway and other kids about where they lived. But she said they still got picked on.

time the bus smelled bad, it was always the kids that made it smell bad, Dunnaway said. pretty much what other kids called us. I started to believe them after a little while. she and her siblings were called rats and other derogatory names.

try to forget about all of that, she said.

Despite the challenges, Dunnaway stayed hopeful and worked hard. As a result, she will achieve a personal milestone when she graduates from Spartanburg High on Friday.

Nearly two and a half years ago, Dunnaway and her family were able to find safer and more stable housing with relatives.

But there are some details about motel life that have stuck with Dunnaway that she finds difficult to share.

Dunnaway said her family lived at a few motels throughout her life, spending several years at a time at some of them.

It wasn uncommon for her, two younger siblings and her parents to squeeze into one room with no privacy. At the last motel where she lived, her family had a little more space with two adjoining rooms, she said.

thought we were only going to be (at the last motel) for a little bit but we were there longer, Dunnaway said.

When her parents vehicle broke down, the family no longer had reliable transportation for jobs, appointments and errands. Dunnaway said her parents made ends meet by working at the motel her mother as a housekeeper and her father as a handyman.

Dunnaway remembers a lot of other families with children living at the motels. She also remembers some tenants doing drugs and prostitutes hanging around.

was really nowhere to go to get away from it, besides in the parking lot, she said. then if you went out there, you had to watch out for drivers speeding around the corners. life

At Spartanburg High, Dunnaway kept to herself and stood alone near the same corner of the atrium every morning. She said she didn hang out with classmates, decided not to go to the prom and never ate lunch in the cafeteria.

didn want to be in there with all the people, Dunnaway said. don really have any friends and I never did even when I was going to high school. I did go through a phase of being jealous of what the other kids had because I couldn get them a cellphone, shoes, nicer clothes. Dunnaway got detention for not having a school ID, which her family couldn’t afford to buy, she didn go because it was after school and she wouldn’t have had a way to get home. After that, she got in school suspension for skipping detention.

The situation caught the eye of Spartanburg School District 7 educators, including Jeff Stevens, Spartanburg High principal.

was usually my first conversation every morning when I came out of my office, he said. would talk (to me), but she didn offer up a lot of conversation. You could tell that she was probably going through some things. Stevens found out about Dunnaway home life from a fellow educator, he continued to speak daily with Dunnaway.

always wanted her to feel safe where she was and know that if there was anything she needed to talk about that I was certainly right there, he said. I think she knew that and she felt safe in that corner. Cunningham, Spartanburg High choral director, said Dunnaway was a quiet student in her class for three years.

always participated but she did not bond easily with the people around her, Cunningham said. the choir room was a safe place she could come and she was accepted for who she was and nobody asked questions. action

Dunnaway didn see a way past the obstacles in her life until four years ago, when she met Dr. Gloria Close, a Spartanburg School District 7 educator.

Close said it was the negative spiral that Dunnaway family was going through that got her attention.

Close knew about families living permanently at motels around the country, but said it wasn until she saw it firsthand in Spartanburg and got to know the families that she felt she needed to take action.

seen (mothers at the motels) give their last money to someone who didn have any money for the next day rent, she said. a whole sense of going to happen? every day. There a sense of hopelessness and just plain fear. (Care, Accept, Share, Teach), a program with a team of volunteers assisting families in poverty, particularly those with children living in motels.

Close and volunteers provide families with groceries and meals, offer a three week educational summer camp for the children and assist the parents in finding employment and more permanent, affordable housing.

love to help the families, but it about the kids and breaking that cycle. A motel is no place for a child to be raised, Close said. think there a lot of work to be done, it just one kid at a time. already has helped a handful of families move out of motels. The program also has helped many children like Dunnaway from falling through the cracks.

was just incredible to watch her grow from being such a shy, almost scared individual in the ninth grade, Cunningham said.

Today, Dunnaway lives at her aunt house in Spartanburg County with her mother, sister and dog. Her two brothers live nearby with an uncle.
black and yellow polo shirt graduating from high school

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