It’s been 27 years since Laurie Carr, recently divorced and pregnant with her second child, moved into a subsidized housing unit on Hill Street in South Portland.

Things looked grim. She had little money, no education beyond high school and faced that disheartening array of challenges – raising your kids, putting food on the table, bettering yourself – that traps so many families in generation after generation of impoverishment.

But she never lost hope. Because her rent was adjusted to her income through the South Portland Housing Authority, Carr eventually managed to go back to school, earning associate degrees in business and accounting from Kaplan University. She got a part-time bookkeeping job. And she brought up her kids – Christie-lee, now 30, and Nathan, 27 – determined that they would not one day find themselves in the same quandary she did.

“I proved to myself that, yeah, I know what I’m doing,” Carr, now 58, said in an interview last week. “I know what I’m talking about.”

It shows. Carr, who remarried three years ago, now owns her second home, as well as her first, which she rents to her daughter and several housemates. She works full time as the office administrator for Caiazzo & Sons Plumbing in Scarborough.

And, quite fittingly, she’s the inspiration behind the South Portland Housing Authority’s Laurie Carr Scholarship, which for the past eight years has offered up to $2,000 to high school seniors who either live in one of the authority’s units or have a housing voucher under its jurisdiction.

We don’t normally correlate housing authorities with scholarships, but it makes sense. What better way to help young, low-income residents get a leg up on the socioeconomic ladder than to lessen the financial load of a college education?

Thus, housing authority scholarships have blossomed over the years not only in South Portland, but also in Portland and Westbrook, as well as statewide through the Maine Association of Public Housing Directors.

“The Commissioners of the Portland Housing Authority care deeply about supporting opportunities for low-income families to break the cycle of poverty,” Cheryl Sessions, executive director, said in an email. “The scholarship awards are an annual highlight of the perseverance and strength of our residents.”

Elwaad Werah couldn’t agree more.

She’s one of 11 recipients this year of the Portland scholarships, 231 of which have been awarded over the past 25 years through private donations to the Portland Housing Services Corp., the authority’s development arm, along with $45,000 from Key Bank since 2015.

Werah, 21, is a senior at Bowdoin College, majoring in education and government. After moving to Portland from Atlanta in third grade, she grew up in subsidized housing in Portland with her mother, Moulouko Dirir, an immigrant from the East African nation of Djibouti, and her younger sister, Atia Werah.

Elwaad, two semesters away from becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree, received her first $2,000 scholarship from the Portland Housing Authority last year. Her sister, a junior at Bowdoin, joins her among this year’s recipients.

Elwaad credits her mother with getting her and her sister this far.

“She was very headstrong about education and she was always on our grades, checking our portals, going to every parent-teacher conference,” Elwaad said during a Zoom interview. “She never had the opportunity to go to university. She didn’t complete high school, so she pretty much stressed my whole childhood to take education very, very seriously.”

At the same time, Elwaad sees the $4,000 in help from the Portland Housing Authority as the difference between the countless hours she worked at Dunkin’ on Washington Avenue in Portland during her first two college summers, and her 2019 summer internship as a senior counselor with Phillips Brooks House Association – a student-led community service organization at Harvard University.This summer, she interned in the office of Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana, focusing on, among other things, college readiness for first-generation, low-income high school students.

“I feel like there’s less weight on my shoulders, rather than just working and working and working and working overtime,” said Elwaad, a 2017 graduate of Deering High School. “And I think it’s just amazing that they give students like me an opportunity to have at least a portion of our tuition funded.”

Across the bridge in South Portland, Mary DiSanto knows the feeling. She graduated in June from South Portland High School and is now headed for Thomas College in Waterville, thanks in part to a $1,000 Laurie Carr Scholarship award.

For the past six years, Mary has lived with her mother and two younger brothers in a South Portland Housing Authority home in the city’s Thornton Heights neighborhood.

Mary sees her scholarship as an “amazing program” at a time when students like her need all the help they can get.

“Obviously it’s hard to pay for college right now,” she said via Zoom. “And being in a low-income household, it can be especially challenging. So I think that having a scholarship based on those qualifications is really helpful. I’m not going to say I couldn’t afford it before, because I would take out the loans or whatever, but it was definitely helpful.”

Not to mention a good investment.

A member of both the National Honor Society and the World Language National Honor Society for Latin while in high school, Mary’s rigorous courses and high grades earned her admission to Thomas College’s “3-Plus-1” program, meaning she’ll earn both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in four years. She’s currently majoring in business administration, but already feels a tug toward political science and project management.

“My voice will be used and heard, for myself and those not able to speak up for themselves,” she promised.

Which brings us back to Laurie Carr, whose daughter now works as a manager for Hannaford Supermarkets, while her son, a graduate of Maine Maritime Academy, works as a merchant mariner.

She’ll long remember the night in 2012 when the South Portland Housing Authority board of commissioners, which she was departing as a resident commissioner because she’d just bought her own private home, awarded her an iPad and announced the scholarship that from then on would carry her name.

“It was very touching,” Carr said. “It brought me to tears.”

As it has, to this day, for those who follow in her footsteps.

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