Ashley Paige, high school program director for a local nonprofit.SHRUTI SHARMA/Medill

Ashley Paige Allen was just 9 years old when her father was sent to prison for possession of drugs with an intent to sell. In no time Allen, with her mom and two siblings, found herself doubling up at her aunt’s place where, she says, they were never welcomed.

“It was difficult. My aunt’s husband made it known that he didn’t want us to live there … and after a while she kicked us out because her husband told her that we had to leave,” Allen said.

With no other place to go, the only option the family had was to go to a homeless shelter, a fact Allen kept secret from her friends in school for years.

“I never told them what was going on because I was embarrassed and ashamed. You know kids are mean,” Allen said.

And she did it so well that some of her long-time friends did not know that she was homeless until recently.

“I kind of lived two separate lives. The only way people could contact me was through the phone because they could never come to my house,” Allen said. “My ninth-grade friend just found out, 16 years later.”

The state of homelessness made life chaotic for Allen. She remembers taking on responsibility for her siblings as her mother worked full-time.

“I was tired of changing diapers, feeding babies. I was tired of cooking. I was tired of cleaning. I was just tired and felt like I had lived 40 lives by the time I was 16,” she recalled.

At that point all she wanted was to take time for herself and focus on her education.

“I didn’t like being poor and I was told if I study, I’ll have a decent-paying job.”

Allen said she has great respect for education because it’s the only reason she is not poor anymore.

Today, at 29, she is the high school program director at Horizons, a non-profit that helps low-income children get a better education.

“Without education I wouldn’t have the job that I have, make a decent salary that I have. Education was my saving grace in many situation,” Allen said.

And that’s what motivates Allen to be involved in education and improve the life of kids from underprivileged backgrounds. She said her background makes it easier for her to understand the low-income and sometimes homeless youth at Horizons, with whom she deals with every day.

“She has a vast knowledge base,” said Robin Varnado, family programs director at Horizons.

“She is quite intuitive when it comes to young people. She can spend a few minutes with a child and she can tell what high school or college they should go to and what’s going to work for them and what’s not.” The kids, Varnado said, are usually the first in their family to go to college.

Allen said it was the high expectations that she had for herself that helped her achieve so much in life. She has the same expectations for the students she works with, and she is not afraid to push them.

Allen got her master’s degree in public policy at Governor’s State and now plans to get a Ph.D. in the same subject.

“Lots of times people say that I am too tough on students and that my expectations are really high, but I think it’s just because I know what people are capable of. I think if you set the bar low for people that’s as far as they are going to rise, because that’s where the bar is.”