A mother on a mission

Where do you learn the basics, like managing your household finances, when you lose your parent so early in life? Those are just some of the challenges that Renae faced when she lost her mother at 17. But she's determined to make sure her children get the right start in life.

Photos/video by Charles Ashley. Story by Valerie West.

What happens when you lose your own mother at 17 and then learn you are about to become one?

That was the experience of Renae Allen, a woman who has both struggled and overcome challenges that would have debilitated many.

Renae’s story is not a typical one. At 17, most kids are thinking about prom and textbooks – not funerals and diapers.

“I lost my support system. I had to grow up and become an adult,” Renae said. “There were a lot of days I didn’t know what to do.”

Through her grief and her pregnancy, Renae still managed to earn her diploma. Shortly after that, she gave birth to Lenaya. She found work at a local sandwich shop and became the primary caretaker for her daughter.

Renae, who is now 30, has three daughters. She’s recently reconciled with the girls’ father, Henry, and the couple has rented a small three-bedroom ranch home.

“We’re starting anew,” she said, raising her arms to show off the few boxes that still remain unpacked. “This is an adventure for us.”

Renae’s resilience is inspiring. Unfortunately, for a lot of people in her situation, resiliency alone isn’t enough. Forty percent of Southeastern Michigan residents live paycheck to paycheck, according to a commissioned study by HighPoint Associates. At United Way for Southeastern Michigan, we’re working with people just like Renae to help them reach long-term financial stability. Renae is committed to providing the best life possible for her family.

Parenting comes first

As Renae spoke about her hopes and dreams, her daughters peeked their heads out of their rooms to see what was happening. They were preparing to dance and were practicing their moves.

“Want to see me do a cartwheel? I taught myself,” said 7-year-old Kerstyn. She leapt into the air before showing off a toothy grin. Her younger sister, Leila, 5, followed her older sisters around as they vied for attention.


Renea makes sure her children get loads of healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables.

The girls, who Renae calls, “my independent women,” continued to laugh and play while Renae went into the kitchen to make a snack for them. She rinsed strawberries and sliced up apples as she talked about the future.

Renae’s dream is to have a home of her own for her family.

“I’d like to have my own space. I’d like to have a little land — some privacy,” she said, looking out her window at a small, fenced-in back yard. She added, “Maybe have a garden. Some chickens.”


Renea works as a cook’s aid at Starfish, a nonprofit organization that serves vulnerable children and families.

Throughout the years, Renae has strived to improve her situation, working in a variety of jobs – from offering unlicensed childcare in her home, to telemarketing and airport security.

She currently balances two part-time jobs — still at that same sandwich shop she started at when she was 17, and also as a cook’s aid at Starfish, a nonprofit organization that serves vulnerable children and families. On top of that, she is getting her Child Development Associate credentials so that she can one day work in a childcare position.

Renae knows that employment isn’t enough. To reach her goals, she’s improving her financial situation with the help of a coach from a United Way Community Financial Center.

Serving the community

The centers offer folks like Renae a variety of services, from budgeting help to workplace advancement training.

Renae has raised her credit score by 50 points with the help of her coach, Chanel. Through the coaching, Renae even discovered that someone had started a credit card in her name when she was still a child.

To date, financial coaches like Chanel have helped 692 clients raise their credit scores by an average of 121 points.

Chanel has known Renae for fifteen years and wants to see her succeed.

“Renae is very dedicated to her children and her role as a mother,” Chanel said. “They definitely come first and foremost.”

United Way is working with 13 partner agencies to help more people like Renae.

“Financial Stability is critical for family success,” said Nick Piper, Financial Stability Manager at United Way. “When individuals have a stable income, they provide basic needs for their family, like a healthy meal. They also save for retirement, purchase a home or invest in their community.”


Renea dreams of a brighter future for her family.

For Renae, the coaching has proven invaluable.

“If more people could take advantage of these services, we’d have more entrepreneurs. We could build up this community,” Renae said. “We’d become a less high-risk area if people had jobs.”

Renae also found out about free tax prep services, which saved her a few hundred dollars. The savings helped pay for utilities and groceries.

“I just need to know what direction to go in. If you show me, or model for me, I can do it.”

Looking toward the future

Despite Renae’s efforts, she hasn’t qualified for a home loan yet, but she’s confident that if she keeps moving in the current direction she’ll get her dream home for her family.

“I want to teach my girls to be independent. Their mom is a woman of many different hats,” she said, and laughed.

She is optimistic about the future her daughters will experience.

“I hope they grow up and complete school,” Renae said. “I want them to be happy and successful at whatever they do.”