Sunday, February 1, 2004

Sacrifices produce rewards



By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Michelle and Joe Hodge of Sharonville have endured hardships, including bankruptcy and their boys' illnesses, to provide an education for their children. Here, they're seen with their son Mathue, who attends a design college in Philadelphia.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
SHARONVILLE - Michelle and Joe Hodge don't even have a couch to sit on. They can't afford one. They have college bills to pay.

The Hodges are an extreme example of the financial-aid problems that can grip some families. Together, the couple grosses about $52,000 a year, Michelle as a customer service representative and Joe as a tile setter.

That puts them over the limit for some need-based college aid. But the couple's net income is far less than $52,000, Michelle says. Her pay stub shows that she grosses $1,350 every two weeks, but she takes home only $718.

Twice, the Hodges have declared personal bankruptcy, court records show.

"We figured it was worth everything we had to make sure these kids have some type of degree," Joe says.

The couples' three children are Mykal, 22, Marea, 21 and Mathue, 19.

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Their financial problems began in 1986, when the boys were hospitalized with a life-threatening strain of influenza, Michelle says. At the time, she worked at a grocery and her husband was a dockworker. Medical bills led to their first bankruptcy.

Then came education issues. The children weren't thriving in Princeton's public system, so their parents switched them to religious schools at a cost of about $5,000 a year altogether.

Marea attended one semester of college, then became a teacher at a small religious school.

Mykal, an excellent student, attended Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where most of the tuition was covered with scholarships, low-interest loans and a federal Pell grant for needy students. The Hodges contributed $2,500 a year. Mykal graduated last year.

Now Mathue is the family's focus. A talented artist with no patience for academic lectures, he needed a hands-on school away from Cincinnati, his parents say. They settled on the Antonelli Institute in Philadelphia, where Mathue is studying graphic design.

He came home this Christmas with a sparkle in his eye and a 3.0 grade-point average.

"That's the first time he's ever done that well in school without me saying, 'Do your homework! Do it! Do it!' " Michelle says, laughing.

But as always, money has been a problem. Mathue got low-interest loans but didn't qualify for a Pell, because his parents make too much money now and aren't paying school bills for any other children.

The Hodges must pay $4,500 a year toward Mathue's tuition. Last semester, Michelle borrowed from her retirement plan at work, but this semester, Mathue's return to Antonelli looked doubtful. Then, three weeks ago, officials at the school managed to qualify him for another loan.

Mathue calls his parents "extraordinary." Last fall, he and his siblings secretly arranged an appreciation dinner for them, inviting 100 people. All three children read tributes to the couple, who cried.

"Something like that happens," Joe Hodge says, "and it makes it all worth your while."

Email kgutierrez@enquirer.com




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