When her mother died of colon cancer “childhood was kind of over” for Finie Richardson. At 13, she became the mother of the household, which included her father and 11 year old cousin. Her father, who worked as a custodian, took his wife’s death hard. Finie watched him change. “He struggled emotionally to overcome his grief and coped by using substances.” He was using drugs. I don’t know exactly what but I think he used it as an outlet for his grief.”

Her mother had worked as a bus driver, and the income and stability the family had once enjoyed was diminished, “We struggled. Our lifestyle wasn’t as stable as I was accustomed to.” She watched a lot of things her parents had worked really hard for go down the drain including a home they owned in Maryland.

Finie’s father decided to move back to his childhood home in South Carolina, and Finie asked an aunt if she could live with her until she finished high school in Maryland. “I felt comfortable with her and that allowed me to kind of be a kid again.” She’d always done well in school, especially in science—taking honors and advanced placement classes. She wanted to live up to her parents’ dream. They wanted her to have a college education, but the money they’d saved for it was gone.

With the help of a Beat the Odds scholarship in 1997, Finie attended Howard University and majored in biology. She wanted to be a doctor to help as many people as possible survive cancer. Her mother’s type of cancer, she learned, probably could have been cured if it had been caught earlier, and Finie became concerned with the disparities in health care between served and underserved communities.

Her father committed suicide when she was a sophomore and her grades suffered. She spent the rest of her years in college trying to pull up her grade point average, but a low GPA and other factors prevented her from getting accepted into medical school.

“I felt like, ‘Well, maybe that wasn’t my purpose,’” and she went to work at the National Institutes of Health in a lab doing cancer research for three years. She found her true niche when she learned that Howard was offering a master’s degree in public health. She went to Howard at night and worked at NIH during the day.

Since finishing her master’s degree, she’s been working at Howard, lecturing in its College of Medicine on health literacy and going out to family reunions and other gatherings in underserved communities to talk about how to collect health history information and what conversations to have with the doctor when they get a physical exam. She talks about all the issues that kept her mother from getting an early diagnosis and perhaps life-saving treatment, “fear of going to the doctor, fear of being screened. That’s what public health is.… Prevention.”

Finie married and has a daughter. A second child is on the way. She says she “can’t thank CDF enough,” for believing in her.