'We are real, we are struggling'

Sabrina Jenkins of Goose Creek, a human resources director with Charleston County Housing Authority, sat with first lady Michelle Obama at Tuesday's State of the Union address.

Sabrina Jenkins of Goose Creek sat with first lady Michelle Obama during Tuesday's State of the Union address, symbolizing millions of working women living paycheck to paycheck.

"I'm hoping that my presence will show that we are real," Jenkins said Tuesday morning. "The single women out there, the single parents, we are real, we are struggling, and the president does recognize that."

Jenkins works as a human resources director with the Charleston County Housing Authority, where she met nonprofit consultant Jennet Robinson Alterman, who is vice chairwoman of the authority's board.

Alterman, who has a long record of helping to mentor women and promote women's issues, urged Jenkins to share her story with The Shriver Report, a national look at the 42 million American women and their 28 million children who are on the brink of poverty.

The report was released this month, and on Friday the White House called Jenkins to invite her to be one of the first lady's special guests. She was sworn to secrecy until the official guest list was released.

Her trip to Washington, her meeting with the Obamas and her turn in the national spotlight has been dizzying for Jenkins, who returned to the Lowcountry a few years ago to help care for two sick uncles.

"It's beyond surreal," she said. "I'm a huge fan of Barack Obama, his administration and what he's been trying to do. To be able to meet him, and to know that out of all the women that were part of the Shriver report, that my story somehow touched Michelle Obama to the point where she felt like she wanted to meet me. That's, like, amazing."

Jenkins, 45, grew up in northern New Jersey and New York, but spent part of her youth in the Lowcountry, which her parents called home.

She spent her summers here with her extended family because her single mother could not do her job during the day and look after her.

Jenkins, 45, served in the Air Force but had to retire when her mother became ill. She had a daughter, Kenya, whose father left when she was 4 years old.

As a single mother, Jenkins took classes at DeVry University while working full time, and she graduated at age 40 with a 3.7 grade point average. She then earned a master's degree in human resources from DeVry's Keller School of Management - all while battling a blood-clotting disorder and rheumatoid arthritis, which affects her lungs and her eyes as well as her joints.

"It's a daily medication regime that I go through, of pills and shots and things like that just, to maintain and stay in decent health," she said. "I can't say I'm in great health, but I'm doing well enough compared to a lot of other people who suffer from what I'm suffering from."

And then there are her financial challenges from her illnesses and her student loans, which total more than $90,000.

Jenkins said her $38,000 salary is relatively decent for the Charleston area, but it's tough to stretch that to cover her living expenses, $400 monthly student loan payments, her medications and the needs of her daughter, now 16 and a student at Stratford High School.

If she's lucky, Jenkins said, she will retire her student debt by the time she retires.

Jenkins was heartened by Barack Obama's announcement Tuesday that he plans to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors, but she said it's still too financially difficult for many to get the education they need to better their lives.

"I even toyed with the idea of getting my doctorate," she said, "but I can't put myself in any more debt right now. ... To me, that would almost be foolish. Right now, my next goal is to get my daughter into a good school and make sure she has all the tools she needs to be successful."

While Jenkins is thrilled and honored by her invitation, she knows many other women could have been chosen in her place.

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"My story is the story of so many women today who are struggling to do the right thing, struggling to keep their families afloat, dealing with issues of chronic illness and trying to get a better education," she said. "It's so hard."

Alterman, who helped Jenkins find a dress for tonight's occasion, said she sees two main lessons emerging from Jenkins' experience this week.

"One, we all need to be aware of issues that women are facing all over the country but particularly in South Carolina, since we're behind in so many areas," she said. "The second lesson is the power of women helping each other, mentoring. As Madeleine Albright said, 'There's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women.'"

Shriver Report host Maria Shriver also celebrated Jenkins' invitation, because her story illustrates the challenge so many others face. "For too many American women, the dream of 'having it all' has morphed into 'just hanging on,'" Shriver said.

Housing Authority board chairman Ben Brazell said Jenkins is a credit to the authority, adding, "It is our hope that other women in our community can benefit from Sabrina's example."

Jenkins already has told her story to CNN and other national media, and doesn't know what doors might open for her after this week.

"I'm just so blown away," she said, "but all I know is as the doors open, I'm fully prepared to walk through them."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.