They have come a long way from that shelter for victims of domestic violence they stayed in for a few months in 1995 – Deborah Thielen and her children, Jim and Rochelle.
When Jim graduated from St. Thomas in December 2005 and Debbie graduates in May 2006, they will look back and remember that life choices made them strong.
Jim, 22, has two majors – electrical engineering and physics – and graduated summa cum laude, the highest academic honor, with a 3.9 GPA. But he still remembers years ago while walking to school trying to figure out how to say “no” to the tough neighborhood drug dealers without annoying them so much they would hurt him. “I knew I could never go to drugs,” he said calmly. “It was difficult to keep saying no, but thinking of my family helped me get through every tough situation.”
At St. Thomas, Jim specialized in optics research with physics teachers Dr. Marty Johnson and Dr. Adam Green. During summers, he worked 30 hours a week at 3M as a research assistant and 20 hours a week in the Physics Depart-ment. After he graduated, 3M and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, well-known for optics research, are fully funding his study for a Ph.D. there. Then he will return to the Twin Cities to work for 3M.
“Marty called me just after I graduated from Champlin Park High School,” Jim recalled, “and helped me decide to go into physics at St. Thomas. I took an advanced class here while in high school and really liked it. I thought the faculty really cared about helping students and was able to get academic and need-based scholarships.
“I was still a little unsure on what college to attend, but when I found out my Mom could go here and attend college for free as a parent, the decision was made. I remember how much she sacrificed for me and now I could repay her,” Jim said. “She has done everything she could for me, even helping out with food and a car when I lived off campus after freshman year.” Under the Parents-on-Campus Program, parents of full-time undergraduates can attend St. Thomas free on a space-available basis. Parents pay only lab and other fees.
“We had nothing after we fled our home in Brooklyn Center about 10 years ago,” Debbie recalled. “But that is when we all started to become what we are today.
“It is so nice to be happy and healthy and not afraid. I am proud of the adults my children have become. My daughter, Rochelle, 24, is married to a helicopter pilot, a great guy, and they live in California, where she is a national account manager for ADP. Jim will marry Chelsie Hanstad, a University of Minnesota graduate who I just love, in January and so both my children will live on the same coast.”
The first years after the shelter were hard. Debbie became caretaker in an apartment building to afford a place to live; it was so small that her daughter slept on a couch. She bought furniture from a secondhand store. One job she had was cleaning toilets for $5 an hour. She “hated to go to a food shelf but we had to do it to survive.”
They moved often but now live in suburban Shoreview where Debbie manages an apartment building. Debbie volunteered at the Family Violence Network (which sheltered her) and later became the shelter house manager for more than 5 years. “My kids don’t remember much about being there, but Jim recalls watching other children his age sleeping on the floor even though they had beds because they worried about gunshots coming through the walls. We have to do something about poverty, crime and abuse in this country.”
Debbie also co-founded All Seasons Rescue, which collects perishable food and water from restaurants, conventions and events like the Twin Cities Marathon and brings supplies to those in need.
Despite the “low self-esteem that comes from an abusive relationship, and being frightened to try something new after 20 years out of high school,“ Debbie wanted to continue her education. She took some computer classes, and then enrolled at Century College and loved it, completing two years of coursework there while working more than 40 hours a week.
“Jim and I started St. Thomas in 2001, on the same day, and dreamed on graduating on the same day,” Debbie recalled, but she had to take the spring 2005 semester off to look after an elderly relative who was dying. She hopes to get her degree in social work (she has a 3.5 GPA) next May. Then she will work with the elderly.
“I believe God has put me on a certain path in life. Some-thing that changed me also affected others and finally put me where I am today. God put me in situations to help others and I can relate because I’ve been there.
“I feel very blessed to be at St. Thomas. The Parents-on-Campus Program has special meaning in my life. It has been a gift of hope to many. And it has been interesting that a few students have spoken to me about abuse situations of their own because I am such a ‘mom’ type, not knowing that I was once in a similar situation.”
Debbie has been a student accounts coordinator at the College of St. Catherine for almost three years, and now funds Jim’s education. One college job benefit is free college tuition for the employee and 75 percent tuition remission for their children at many Catholic colleges in the area and across the nation.
Throughout college, Jim has been active in engineering clubs, volunteered at a food shelf, and organized students in service projects, including delivering clean water to people who need it. “Being in a shelter taught me that there are people just like us who are in need,“ he said.
Jim’s best memories of St. Thomas will be the faculty who became friends: “I’m going to invite about six of them to my wedding. I’ve also realized that I didn’t know what it meant to be Catholic until I took the required theology courses. My faith has grown since I came here and is one of the most important things I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
He looks forward to working at 3M but admits a secret dream: “Some day after my kids are older, I might want to teach physics in high school or college. Teachers who reach out to kids at that age really make such a difference in their lives.”