Elizabeth “Betsy” Lane refuses to talk publicly about the impact of drug and alcohol addiction in her life, even though she wasn’t the one drinking all of that booze or ingesting the narcotics.
The Holy Family University junior-to-be politely and deftly hedges on the pitiful details about the strained family relationships and financial hardships that likely contributed to, and certainly resulted from, the substance abuse of her parents and an older brother.
She mostly nods and smiles when asked about her own hardships: like how she bounced from home to home as a student at Abington High School, sometimes living with her parents, other times living at her brother’s place, and yet other times living with friends. At one point, she even moved to Southern California to live with her grandmother, but that arrangement proved only a short-term diversion, not a long-term solution.
“I don’t want (my story) to have a negative spin. My intent in telling the story in the first place was to be positive. That’s one of my main goals. I want to motivate people,” she recently told the Northeast Times.
Lane’s inspirational story first surfaced in September, when she spoke eloquently during a dinner at the Torresdale-Frankford Country Club to honor Holy Family scholarship benefactors and recipients. The spring 2011 edition of the university’s glossy semi-annual magazine spread her tear-provoking testimony beyond the banquet hall.
Lane is the grateful recipient of two university-based grants, the Jaye Grochowski Scholarship — an award based on academic merit, need and commitment to Judeo-Christian values — and the W.W. Smith Charitable Trust Grant, an award based on need and potential for success.
Three years ago, she seemingly had nothing working in her favor but her own personal resolve. Now she’s halfway to a bachelor’s degree in biology and looking forward to a career in physical therapy.
“I wanted to rise above everything that had been in my life,” Lane said.
“There are people who say, ‘I can’t go to college,’ and ‘I don’t have the money.’ But there’s no excuse.”
On the surface, Lane’s saga is not one that might readily win sympathy from hardened working-class folks in Northeast Philly. To a skeptic, it might read something like this: pretty blonde girl from a largely upscale suburb misses the gravy train and goes to work for a living like the rest of us.
Yet, even in the city, kids deserve the chance to finish high school, and a place to live while doing it. Lane almost didn’t get that chance.
Instead, she became a de facto foster mom to her brother’s four young children, including one who has cerebral palsy and autism, while her brother and the children’s birth mother each struggled with addiction. Her parents were dealing with their own financial, alcohol and drug issues at the time and were ill-prepared to pick up extra responsibilities.
As a result, the teenage Lane found herself at the center of a juggling act. The first ball to fall was school. She missed a lot of days. When she did show up, people started calling her “Shady Lane,” a reference to her growing here-today/gone-tomorrow reputation.
“That was a really hard time, period,” Lane said. “I didn’t think I was going to college. I didn’t take the SATs. I really didn’t have anybody telling me I should go to college.”
Some days, it all was too much for her to handle. A guidance counselor, Tina Ferebee, and vice principal Rodd McCuen intervened on her behalf.
“Whenever I had problems, I always went to Ms. Ferebee’s office crying,” Lane said.
The counselor offered Lane a brighter perspective, and McCuen threw her a lifeline academically. Lane vowed to try harder in school, so McCuen promised not to take a hard line on her spotty attendance, considering the circumstances.
“It was like a fork in the road,” Lane said. “It was, ‘Either you stay home and take care of the kids and let this madness go on or you let the kids go into foster care and try to graduate high school.’”
She chose the latter path. And although it has presented her with a whole new set of challenges, it also has provided her with the necessities to thrive.
Ferebee persuaded Lane to take the SATs and reconsider her college options. Lane got her diploma but had no money to live. So she decided to take time off from school. She worked as a nanny for two families and as a waitress.
“One week, I worked seventy-four hours, and I slept maybe twenty-four,” Lane said.
Around the same time, she renewed a friendship with a young man named James Booth. They had met in junior high school and dated before a falling out.
While Lane was at Abington High, Booth attended Calvary Christian Academy. They reconnected via Facebook and began dating again in fall 2008, while Booth was a freshman majoring in business management and marketing at Holy Family.
“Since then we’ve been the best of friends, and his family has become like my family,” Lane said.
“I didn’t decide I was going to college until I had that year off. Mostly and honestly, it was James and his family (who convinced me).”
Lane figured she’d borrow money to pay for school. In addition to federally subsidized guaranteed student loans, which she won’t have to pay back until after graduation, her grandmother — the one in California — co-signed a private loan for her.
Good karma gave Lane yet another boost one evening in early 2009 when Jaye Grochowski walked into Three Monkeys Café in Torresdale, where Lane was waiting tables.
Grochowski, who works in Holy Family’s alumni and parents office, struck up a conversation with the aspiring student. The topic turned to college. “In five minutes speaking to her, she can convince anybody to go to Holy Family,” Lane said. “She’s the type of person whose positivity really has an effect.
“I told her I was going to go to Holy Family, and she told me about this scholarship. She wanted me to apply and gave me her phone number. We talked for about a half-hour that night.”
Lane knew she wanted to study to become a physical therapist so she could help special-needs children like her brother’s son. “The physical therapist would come to the house and would do wonders with him,” Lane recalled.
Now a full-time student, Lane still works at Three Monkeys, and she also works as a resident assistant, helping to supervise an on-campus dormitory. When not studying or working, she usually can be found working out at the gym.
“It feels like a totally different world, a totally different life,” she said.
Things are improving on her home front, too. Her mom now lives in Bethlehem and has adopted the four grandchildren, who are now ages 5 to 8. Lane’s father and brother live in Abington. She meets up with her dad from time to time to visit the youngsters.
Lane’s regimented schedule doesn’t bother her a bit.
“I kind of consider myself so lucky I have to work so hard for school, because if you have no appreciation for what you’re doing, it’s not going to be worth a lot to you,” she said.
“I definitely have days — I think everybody does — where I’m like, ‘How much do I want this?’ But if you really want something, you really commit yourself to it.” ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org