April Stevens Gung grew up poor with disabled parents – a blind mother and a father with a rare heart disorder. When she was 10, her father taught her to drive and to manage the family finances because he was ill and hospitalized frequently. Her mother was able to cook and clean, but could not work or do grocery shopping or errands outside the home. She and her parents and two younger siblings lived on his occasional salary and her mother’s Social Security disability payments in a poor neighborhood in Houston.
April’s burden increased at age 15 when her father died. The family moved in with her bed-ridden grandmother who lived nearby. April played a major role in caring for her siblings, then ages eight and six, and her grandmother. “It was rough for me. I felt trapped.”
She attended a struggling school where 50 percent of the students dropped out before their senior year. When she did well on a standardized test in her sophomore year, teachers started to notice and help her. “I poured myself into academics to be number one and use this as a way to get into a good college and get out.”
She received a Beat the Odds award in 1999, which was just the beginning of her relationship with CDF. Most impactful was a summer internship at CDF headquarters in Washington, D.C. after her freshman year at Rice University.
“That was a huge turning point in my life. There were all these ridiculously smart people who could have been making a lot more money, but helping children was their passion. I began to map out my career goals not based on income. I realized I was driven more to social service than to computer science, which was what I thought I was going to do.”
The next summer, she interned at CDF’s Houston office and worked with its then director Barbara Best in enrolling children in CHIP. She got her own brother and sister signed up, and Best became a mentor.
After college, April taught at a middle school in the Cabrini Green neighborhood in Chicago for two years. “In my personal experience, teachers were the ones who made a difference, and I did my best to be an example of a way out. I loved my kids and periodically still hear from some of them.” She went on to teach at a low-performing school on the South Side that the school board had targeted for a turnaround. Later, she became a trainer for Teach for America.
Last year, April completed a master’s degree in counseling at Vanderbilt University. Having seen first-hand all the non-academic problems poor children bring to school and the importance of college as a way out, she wanted to be back in school this time as a counselor. In 2012, she began work as a counselor at a public high school in Nashville. “CDF made helping children the top priority for me.”