JENNINGS, Mo. — Her sophomore year of high school, her parents kicked her out of the house.
Chay Samuels was born into a strict family of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
She remembers wanting to be with friends and socialize but her parents forbade it.
So, she left.
A foster family in Brentwood took her in.
“They just let me stay. That was the best thing that could have ever happened,” she said.
Her foster mother, Laurie, was a social worker.
She stayed with the family for two years. After high school graduation, Chay and her foster parents packed her things into the family station wagon. They were headed for Cape Girardeau.
Chay was attending Southeast Missouri State University. There, she would follow in her foster mom’s footsteps and majored in social work.
Fast forward a few decades, and Chay is now a surrogate mother to about 600 teenagers.
She runs the health center inside Jennings High School. The center is supported by Washington University which technically makes Chay a Washington University employee.
But, she’s at the school full time. And her job is more than taking temperatures.
Chay spent all summer contacting families.
“I just started calling all of the students and their parents asking if there were any needs they had,” she said.
Chay helped parents and kids deal with the epidemic when it came to medical care, school resources, stress and mental health.
She also met basic family needs, like food.
Once a week, she helped load car trunks with food as part of the grocery giveaway in the Jennings School district.
“Around 9:30 a.m. the line would be already a mile long,” she said.
Now with classes gearing up again, Chay hasn’t missed a beat. She’s helping get students the vaccines they need, helping with virtual homework plans, and supporting parents.
She’s also part of the planning process to keep kids healthy during the pandemic.
“I want to be that trusted, supporting adult…where [students] look back and say, ‘I remember Miss Chay, she taught me this, or she was there unconditionally.’”
A life she realizes is full circle.
“That’s what drives me, because I had those trusted, supportive adults in my life.”