Aly Wenner is the program director at REM Iowa Community Services, where she works with individuals with intellectual disabilities and severe mental health disorders. She has three sons, William, 8, Samuel, 6, and Alexander, 5.
In addition to going to school full time as a single mother, Wenner is an advocate for underrepresented people in Marshalltown. In June, she organized a Black Lives Matter rally and persuaded Mayor Joel Greer to issue a proclamation declaring Juneteenth as a local holiday.
My kids push me to be who I am. I want them to not only have a strong role model in their life, but know that they can do anything they want to. When I was younger, I really didn’t have high expectations for my life. I got pregnant when I was 15. I had my first son when I was 16.
I was bullied out of high school. I had a lot of issues with being sexually harassed, and I think that stems from Black women being sexualized at young ages. I had an incident where one of my boyfriends in high school had taken a nude photo of me and distributed it to the entire football and basketball teams. I ended up having to change my phone number because I was getting sexually suggestive text messages.
I had gone to the administration about it, and at the time, my boyfriend’s stepdad was the police liaison at the school and he called me down and basically said, “If you hadn’t acted like such a slut this wouldn’t have happened and you wouldn’t be pregnant.” I got side eyes from administrators in the hallway, which then led to kids thinking that it was OK to put me in the lockers when I was pregnant. It was not a safe environment. Dropping out was probably one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make because I value education so much. My whole life I’ve said, “I want to be the exception, not the statistic.” But [my mom and I] decided it was too much and I ended up dropping out. My mom home-schooled me for a short period of time, and then I decided that I was going to get my GED.
When I was pregnant in high school, I felt like my life was over. I remember looking at statistics of teen moms and thinking, “Oh my God, I’m not going to graduate high school, let alone college. My life is over. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” I felt like my life had no direction. But I knew that I wanted to be a mom.
After that, I got married at 17. When I was pregnant with my second son, I found out I had pre-cervical cancer. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to have kids anymore, but I knew I wanted three kids, so I told my husband at the time that I needed to do it now just to be safe in case the cancer progressed.
And then at 20 I got divorced. I had three kids by myself at 20, and I was like, OK. I’ve lived my life kind of backwards at this point. I had a moment of self-reflection and thought that it’s only up from here. What am I going to do with my life to give it purpose and to help other people? Since then, I feel that anything I do in my life is directed to those two things.
My purpose in life is advocacy, whether it be for underrepresented groups, or minorities, women and children. I’m very passionate about disability rights.
My youngest son has a disability. I knew Alexander had a disability when he was 21/2 years old. I pushed and pushed for a diagnosis, and I remember how scared I was. Even though I work with people with disabilities every day, I thought, “Can I be a good mother to a child with disabilities?” To overcome that and be fearless in that, that was a huge step I had to take.
My oldest son, William, thinks he’s the man of the house. Since I’ve been divorced, I haven’t really been in a relationship in the last five years. He’s taken on that role of the house leader. He’s very active in sports and he’s very kind. He’s gotten a lot of his humility and passion from me, and I appreciate that. It makes me feel like the things I do are being noticed.
My middle son, Samuel, is very rambunctious and rowdy. He got my outspokenness. He’s very smart and inquisitive. He’s always asking questions. He’s very tech savvy.
Alexander is on the autism spectrum and also has ADHD, sensory processing disorder and a couple other diagnoses like loss of coordination and socialization issues. He is my dinosaur fossil go-to. He said “pachycephalosaurus” before he said “mom.” You can show him any picture of a dinosaur and he can tell you the name, their most prominent feature and a couple other facts. He is constantly on the go and just so open to everything in the world.
Each of my kids has shaped me in a different way. William gave me my compassion. Samuel — bless his heart — gave me my patience. Alexander gave me my humility, my center, my focus and my balance.
Back in March, I thought I was going to have to quit my job. I didn’t know how I was going to do this. It was rough. Then I realized that, you know what, this is my situation. I have to work. I have people who need me. It has to be done. That third day, I woke up and I was like, “We’re doing this. We’re making a schedule. We’re establishing a routine. We’re going to get it done.”
The last 21/2 months have been the absolute worst because I had COVID myself. I tested positive in the beginning of July. I was sick for about a month. I didn’t have any additional help with any of my kids because I couldn’t take them anywhere because I had to worry about exposure. By the time I started to feel better, all three of my kids tested positive so I couldn’t come up to work. I’ve been working completely from home by myself with all of my kids since then. It’s driven me a little bit mad. It’s extremely challenging with the workload that I have and with my youngest son’s disability.
You do what you can with what you have. I tried to stay as socially distant from them as I could, which was hard because my youngest son is a toucher, a hugger and a lover who always needs to be next to me. So for three weeks I was wearing gloves and a mask constantly. I slept with my mask on. Trying to have as little contact with them is hard when you’re the only person there taking care of them.
It was rough. I couldn’t really quarantine them in their rooms. I tried to stay in my room as much as possible but my youngest son needs so much oversight. In his [individualized education program], his number of minutes he can sit unassisted is 120 minutes maximum. I would be standing in the kitchen, working at the counter looking into the living room.
Last week I was on Zoom meetings for 40 hours straight. To be on mute a majority of the time and hope that when you get off mute, somebody’s not screaming, that’s really hard. I’m in a high position of management. It’s hard to maintain that level of professionalism when there’s kids screaming in the background.
The hardest thing is always finding work-life balance. My youngest son has therapy twice a week out of town. My oldest son has baseball practice three times a week. It’s me with a Wi-Fi hotspot on my phone, working on my laptop in my car watching practice while my other two kids are on their tablets working on schoolwork or whatever else I can get them to work on for that two-hour timespan. I have to get creative.
Now with schools open, my two youngest are going back. My oldest son’s dad wanted to keep him online so I respected that. That’ll be a little easier because he’s pretty self-sufficient. He can go with my mom during the day. I don’t doubt that school will close again. I know it will at some point. When that happens, I’ll have to reevaluate my entire game plan because I am also going to school at Marshalltown Community College. Ultimately I want to get my MBA.
Everything’s really hard. But I thrive off of that. I truly believe that the people who contribute to society in the most important ways are people who have come from struggle. If I hadn’t struggled as much as I did, as young as I did, I wouldn’t have the outlook or perspective I have on life now.
Every decision I’ve made has been a good one. People ask me if I regret having kids young. I don’t. Is it challenging? One hundred percent. Do I feel like my life would have been made easier or I could have reached the goals I wanted to sooner, had I not had kids young? Absolutely yes. But I am putting in a lot of hard work into getting my degree. There is blood, sweat and tears going into that degree, and I’m going to appreciate it a lot more. One of my goals is to be able to go into schools and talk to teen moms and let them know what their options are because I didn’t have anybody that did that for me.
What does it mean to be fearless?
Being fearless is doing what you want to do without any hesitation or expectations, because you believe in yourself.
What does being fearless look like?
It’s being true to who you are as a person and not taking no for an answer.
What does being fearless feel like?
It feels blissful. It feels light. You don’t feel like you have any societal pressure or norms holding you back from doing what you’re doing. It’s just believing in yourself.
How do you become fearless?
You make a decision that what you want for yourself holds value, and then you act on that.
Draw the word fearless.
I would draw myself.