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Once-homeless single mother now studying nursing

Stephanie and her 21-month-old daughter, Amber, play after dinner at a Fargo McDonald's in January 2009. An article in The Forum on Christmas Day 2008 featured Stephanie and Amber and their journey from West Virginia to North Dakota. Stephanie and Amber were once living at the YWCA Cass Clay's emergency shelter in Fargo. Forum file photo

What a difference two years can make.

When The Forum first profiled single mom Stephanie Matthews and her toddler, Amber, in December 2008, they were spending Christmas at the YWCA Cass Clay Emergency Shelter in Fargo.

Matthews was working a part-time job in food service, driving a broken-down truck that had to be started with a screwdriver and struggling to pay for a $10 prescription for Amber.

"I turn 25 in February," Matthews said at the time. "This is not the goal I had for my 25th birthday."

Today, Matthews' life exemplifies what persistence and hard work can yield.

She's returned to her native North Carolina, where she's studying to be a registered nurse at a local community college. This semester, she earned three A's and one B.

She also works full time as a cable company dispatcher and plans to enroll Amber in preschool when she turns 4.

"She's getting big," Matthews says of her daughter. "She's in day care. She got her tongue clipped (for ankyloglossia, in which the membrane connecting the tongue to the mouth is unusually short), so now she's going to speech therapy."

Her young daughter, she says, is as personable as ever, and spends some weekends with her biological dad.

Matthews has reconnected with her sister, but has chosen to keep her distance from other family members. In fact, she's had to use up her meager savings to move after her abusive, drug-addicted father found out where she lived.

"I'm trying," Matthews says. "We're starting to get it together. We're still not so comfortable that we have savings, but we get the bills paid. Sometimes it gets pretty rough, but we make it."

Matthews returned to the South in February of 2009 after learning the grandmother who raised her was ill. After her grandma's death, she attempted to drive back to Fargo when her pickup died. She wound up calling an uncle for help and staying in North Carolina.

Even so, she still misses Fargo, with its subzero temperatures and warm-hearted residents. After Matthews' original story ran, numerous people responded by sending her money, gifts and clothes.

"Oh, I miss it, awfully," she says. "The people are nice and everything's so easy to get back and forth to. Really, if I hadn't started schooling here, I would be back in Fargo, no questions asked."

She now lives in an apartment in High Point, N.C., with her significant other and Amber. She hopes her first child, Tyler, who is autistic and living in Washington, D.C., with an aunt, will be able to live with them when he turns 14.

And she has many plans for the future. After becoming a nurse, she'd like to work in neonatal care and pursue a social work degree. Her ultimate goal: to run a center where single, chemically dependent moms can get the support and substance-abuse help they need.

"I've got a big dream," she says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525