Tracy Skalba often uses her own story of a winding path to success to help motivate others.
An 18-year employee at Ontario Works, Tracy says she brings her "street knowledge" when helping young people who are part of her caseload.
"I know what they're facing," she said.
Tracy, who lives in Brantford, dropped out of school in Grade 10. At 16 she had her first child. That, she said, "changed my whole world."
"My new parent role gave me the motivation and inspiration to return to secondary school to complete Grade 12. I was the first female in my family to obtain Grade 12. My graduation brought new feelings of achievement, pride, confidence and hope that I could choose whatever paths I wanted in life."
Now with the second child, Tracy went on to Mohawk College where she earned a diploma in social service work and, after graduation, started a job at Ontario Works.
A brief layoff in 2008 made Tracy realize she needed to "up her game" in order to remain competitive in her field.
The next year she began an online e-learning course through Athabasca University, earning a four-year degree in human services.
Tracy's devotion to life-long learning became an inspiration for her younger siblings to earn their college diplomas.
Now a 41-year-old grandmother, she is supporting her daughter who is studying at a trade school.
Working toward her goals wasn't easy. As a young mother she had little family support as she faced juggling family obligations with school work, learning challenges, money issues, transportation barriers and health concerns.
"It was the criticism from those who doubted me that provided the drive to prove them wrong," said Tracy.
Her situation was proof that it takes a village to raise a child. Tracy's supports included subsidized child care, family, friends, tutors, teachers, professors, counsellors, social assistance, doctors, and nurses.
The time it took to earn a degree online put a strain on Tracy's relationships and required a lot of self-discipline and resourcefulness.
"My new marriage suffered from my absence. My adult daughter's relationship with me suffered when they needed me the most. Their support, encouragement and acceptance made the time we did have together count for precious quality time."
Tracy's education gave her the human service skills she needs to offer financial and employment counselling to her clients.
"You have to practice what you preach. I always tell my clients that if I can do it, anybody can do it. I try to put the supports in place for them."