Charlon Thomas: From Homeless to a Master’s Degree 

Charlon Thomas
Recipient of the Cornelia S. Hodges Zonta Scholarship, The American Association of University Women (AAUW)—Sandra G. Hockenyos Scholarship. Prior recipient of the Leadership Human Services Scholarship, created by Dr. Denise Bockmier-Sommers, Human Services professor 

When Charlon Thomas was a little girl, her family experienced a great injustice. 

During her earliest years, Charlon lived with her grandmother, who helped support Charlon, her four siblings and her mother. Everything changed when her grandmother passed and her mother had to support the family on her own.  

Charlon’s mother eventually began working as a Home Health Care Aide. Because she was often paid in cash, she used cash to pay the rent. One day, seeing the opportunity for a quick buck, the landlord—after Charlon’s mother had paid in cash—claimed he had never received the rent and evicted the family. Without a record of payment, her mother had no recourse but to pack up Charlon and her four siblings and move out. 

With no money and nowhere to go, the family became homeless. Charlon was seven years old at the time. 

“I remember living at the Greyhound Bus Station, in motels, and finally in two shelters,” Charlon says.  

Soon after this, the State stepped in and put all the children in foster homes. 

“Even though I grew up in a foster home, I was blessed to be raised in a wonderful home by an absolutely remarkable woman,” Charlon says. “Ms. Sophia Lee Benimon was a single parent who fostered approximately 35 foster children throughout her lifetime. I lived with her from the age of 7 to 21.”  

Primed for the Helping Professions

Today Charlon is getting her master’s degree in Human Services at UIS with a dual concentration in Social Services Administration (an online program) and Gerontology.  

“My desire to help others is due to both nature and nurture,” Charlon says. “My grandmother worked as a customer service representative at AT&T, my biological mother worked as a Home Health Care Aide and my aunt is a nurse. So helping others is in my DNA.” 

Her environment has also led her into the helping professions. “When I came to live with my foster mother, she already had five foster children in the home, all younger than I was,” Charlon says. “As you would expect, I learned how to help others by helping the five younger children that I lived with in foster care.” Charlon also tutored her fellow students in both math and social studies throughout junior high and high school.  

No wonder helping others comes so naturally to Charlon. 

Charlon’s Path to a Master’s Degree

Following high school, Charlon worked as a dental assistant for four years in the United States Air Force, and after an honorable discharge, she was an assistant (Teacher) in a child care center before securing part-time work as a Direct Support Professional. During this time, she earned an associate’s degree in Special Education from Heartland Community College and then a bachelor’s degree in Sociology with a minor in Gerontology from Illinois State University. 

Charlon was the first in her family to earn a college degree. 

Charlon decided to enroll at UIS in the summer of 2016. “I felt an enormous desire to advance in my career. I was working as a Medical Assistance Consultant II and the only way for me to receive a promotion was to return to school an earn an advanced degree. I was initially interested in the Human Services degree program offered at UIS primarily because I would eventually like to work in management.”  

Charlon added gerontology to her degree program after an interview with Dr. Bockmier-Sommers, Human Services professor: “She encouraged me to complete the coursework for the Gerontology concentration (a blended program) after I explained to her how much I enjoyed working with older adults.” 

As a working adult, taking online classes has worked out perfectly for Charlon: “I have definitely enjoyed the convenience that online classes offer. I am able to work my full-time job during the day, and work on my school assignments late at night.”  

Even so, she much prefers the blended program that the Gerontology program offers because in completely online classes, she misses the face-to-face interaction with her professors and classmates. “I also miss sitting in the classroom, asking questions in person, and immediately receiving a response,” she says. 

While she completes her master’s degree at UIS, Charlon is working as a Medical Assistance Consultant II with the State of Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. “I decided to pursue a master’s degree because of my genuine interest in helping people. When I finish my degree, I would like to work for the Department of Aging so that I can advocate for people with disabilities, help to prevent elder abuse and exploitation, and perhaps write policy.” 

Charlon has two sons, one of whom is now a United States Marine and one who wants to enter the Army after he graduates from high school next year. Online education at UIS has worked out so well for Charlon that she is now considering a second master’s degree in Public Health at UIS.  

UIS is proud and pleased to have a role in this dedicated woman’s life—but that pride probably doesn’t compare to the pride that her passion for helping others would create in the hearts of her grandmother, mother and foster mother.