Leah Martin’s situation – being abandoned by her husband to raise three children under 5 alone and having no higher education to fall back on – could’ve broken her spirit.
Instead, she found her inner drive and with the encouragement of a coworker and professors at Laurel Ridge earned first her associate degree, and then her bachelor’s degree.
Now, she is teaching middle school English and science at Brighter Futures Learning Community, a non-traditional program in the Warren County Public Schools division.
After being dedicated to her family as a homemaker, Martin found herself having to support her children alone after her husband left the country. So, she applied to be a bus driver for Warren County Public Schools.
For 11 years, Martin drove the school bus. Two years in, at the urging of a fellow driver, she decided to enroll at Lord Fairfax.
“I took classes between bus runs,” says Martin, who graduated from a Christian high school in Maryland in 1994. “I was terrified at first, but I knew I had to do something to lift us out of poverty. I became deeply invested in my studies and I slowly began to realize that this meant something. It was a step toward a better life.
“Laurel Ridge became the springboard for my future. Everything I did at Laurel Ridge was an investment in my family’s wellbeing. Even though it was hard work, I considered it my ‘me’ time.”
She has especially fond memories of professors Jonathan Noyalas, Kate Simpson, Michael Garrand and Nancy Penney.
“They really fostered that feeling of growth and self-improvement,” Martin says. “While I was driving a bus, I would always talk to my students about going to college.”
Several of Martin’s students went on to have success at Laurel Ridge before transferring to four-year colleges.
“I am always over the moon when I learn how former ‘bus kids’ excel at Laurel Ridge,” Martin says.
She excelled as well, to the point she was invited to join Phi Theta Kappa, the national honor society for two-year colleges.
“When they invited me to join PTK, I couldn’t even believe I had reached that point,” Martin says. “Laurel Ridge is an all-inclusive environment. Everyone is there to improve their life and their knowledge and their future. That’s what’s so awesome about Laurel Ridge.”
She graduated from Lord Fairfax with an associate degree in liberal arts in 2015 and transferred to Old Dominion University, which has an office on Laurel Ridge’s Middletown Campus. She earned her bachelor’s degree in human services from ODU in 2018, and was hired as a paraprofessional for Warren County Public Schools.
A few months later, a teaching position at Brighter Futures became available. She was offered the job and is currently continuing her education through the University of Virginia.
Martin, who is also a licensed falconer, started her first full year as a middle school science and English at Brighter Futures in August.
“I feel very passionate about serving this population of students,” she says.
The school is housed in the same building as the Warren County Department of Social Services – where Martin at one point sought help in the form of Medicaid, food stamps, and briefly, welfare.
“All these things I had worked for finally came to pass,” she says. “Now, I feel like I’m giving back to the community. I’m working just steps away from the very place that had helped me and gave me a leg up on life. It’s literally come full circle.”
Now ages 14, 15, 16, Martin’s children “grew up on the bus” she drove. The oldest two have their sights set on the military before going to college.
Speaking on her first day in her new job, Martin becomes emotional.
“Today is the first day of school in a job that actually takes me out of poverty,” she says, her voice breaking. “It’s a blessing.”
Martin encourages others to find the courage to take that first step to a brighter future.
“You’re never too old, too busy, too late, too broke, or too anything to invest in yourself,” she says. “You never have to be a victim of your circumstances because you have the ability to rise above and reach a potential that you may not even be aware of!”