After becoming pregnant at 18, Yamilet Herrera set a deadline to ‘figure out my life.’ Now she has a rewarding job and the satisfaction that she’s setting her son up for success.

By Dan Gordon

When Kaiser Permanente’s health care professionals and administrators call the company’s service desk in Atlanta for IT support, Yamilet Herrera is there to provide both technical guidance and a friendly, reassuring presence. The Kaiser employees would no doubt be surprised to learn that only a couple of years ago, the confident voice on the other end of the phone was plagued by self-doubt.

At the end of her first day in college, Herrera learned she was pregnant. As the daughter of immigrant parents with little education who had struggled to make ends meet, she began to question whether her fate would be any different. “I thought, what am I supposed to do now?” Herrera says. “I was 18, trying to figure out my life, and now I was going to have to figure out a life for someone else? I felt lost.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Herrera was raised in Douglasville, Georgia, a modest town of about 30,000 located 20 miles west of Atlanta, by parents determined to see her succeed. Both had immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador when they were teens. “They brought absolutely nothing,” Herrera says. “But they buckled down, took second and third jobs, and with little money raised four of us.”

Herrera, the oldest, remembers feeling out of place as early as kindergarten. “I didn’t know English, so the teachers had trouble communicating with me,” she recalls. “That led to me having a hard time picking up the things all the other kids had learned in preschool, like the A-B-C’s, shapes, and colors. On top of that, I was a Hispanic kid in a predominantly white school, so I looked different. The other kids started making fun of me.”

Once she learned how to read Herrera found refuge in books. While the children in her neighborhood were out playing, she would stay inside devouring whatever book she could find. The Junie B. Jones series, following the exploits of a quirky girl starting in kindergarten, was her favorite, and as Herrera got older she gravitated toward science fiction. But really anything would do. “For a while we had a subscription, something like $10 a month for four books, and then I started noticing the books weren’t coming, probably for financial reasons,” she recalls. “So I would just re-read the books I had. I would get what I could find from the library. When we were at the grocery store on Saturdays I would sit in the book aisle reading while my mom was shopping, and when it was time to leave I would write down where I had left off so I could finish it the next Saturday.”

College hadn’t been an option for Herrera’s parents, but from the start they vowed that their first child’s path would be different. “They wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer,” Herrera says. “But that wasn’t me.” Herrera, her imagination constantly stoked by her beloved books, preferred a more creative field. Ultimately she prevailed over her parents’ wishes, enrolling in a small private college in Atlanta for fashion merchandising.

Halfway through her first semester, she dropped out.

First came the shock of her unplanned pregnancy. Then a teacher confided to Herrera and her classmates that the college was going to lose its accreditation, and that any degrees it conferred would be worthless. Herrera withdrew, and as she approached the halfway point of her pregnancy, she had no backup plan.

When Herrera had graduated high school the previous May, her parents beamed. “Everyone saw it as a big accomplishment, because no one else had made it that far,” she says. Despite her parents’ insistence that their daughter would be different, Herrera was aware that family members in El Salvador had remained skeptical. “They would tell my parents I was going to end up like everyone else they knew — ‘graduate from high school, have a kid and it’s all downhill from there,’” Herrera says. Now, she was beginning to wonder whether her doubters were right.

By the time her son Castiel was born on March 6, 2014, Herrera was despondent. But something changed at the first sight of her newborn child. “I had read all I could about what to expect, but nothing can prepare you for that moment when you realize you’re responsible for another human being,” Herrera says. She turned to Castiel’s father, to whom Herrera is now engaged, and made a vow. “I told him that by our son’s third birthday, I wanted to be able to say I was doing something with my life,” Herrera recalls. “I knew I had to figure something out.”

The answer didn’t come immediately. Herrera was adrift for most of her son’s first two-and-a-half years. She struggled, both financially and emotionally. At first she lived with her parents to save money, but there were tensions, particularly with her father, who wasn’t pleased at his daughter’s new trajectory. Herrera wasn’t ready to move in with her boyfriend, so she lived with a friend until the couple, driven by monetary concerns, decided to get an apartment. Their son was 1. Herrera was working in a grocery store, a job she hated. Going back to school seemed financially out of the question.

Around this time, the best friend of Herrera’s boyfriend began spending a lot of time at the apartment. “He would come over and just talk to us, keeping our minds off of all the stress we were experiencing, trying to help us have fun,” Herrera says. “Then he disappeared for a while.”

In October 2016, with Herrera’s self-imposed deadline to “figure something out” drawing near, the friend resurfaced. “He apologized for going MIA,” Herrera recalls. “He explained it was because he had been busy going through this great program that had turned his life around. That’s when he started telling us about Year Up.”

Herrera was intrigued, but she also thought the concept — six months spent gaining skills in the classroom followed by a six-month internship at a partner company, culminating in the beginning of a rewarding professional career — sounded too good to be true. For two months she did nothing. But as December began, she was miserable at work. The friend was continuing to tell her she had nothing to lose, and her now-fiancé was promising that they would work through the financial and childcare concerns. So Herrera applied to Year Up Greater Atlanta. She was accepted in January 2017, two months before her son’s third birthday.

It wouldn’t be easy. Herrera continued to work part-time at the grocery store while maintaining her household and parental responsibilities during the classroom portion of the program. There were days when she’d get home from work at midnight, shower, spend 2-3 hours studying in the bathroom of her studio apartment so that she wouldn’t wake up her fiancé and son, then catch a few hours of sleep before getting up to go to class. But nothing could interfere with Herrera’s resolve. “As soon as I got accepted into Year Up, my entire mindset changed,” she says. “I could either make this or break this. I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I also knew I had endured plenty, so challenge accepted.”

Even if she was bleary-eyed at times, Herrera possessed a sense of purpose for the first time as she tackled the Year Up curriculum. She learned about business, about writing, and about the people skills required to succeed in corporate America. Her favorite classes focused on computer hardware and applications, planting the seed that she might pursue an IT-related career.

Assigned to Kaiser Permanente for her internship, Herrera started as a project coordinator, assisting with the onboarding of Kaiser Permanente’s help desk analysts — the individuals who provide IT phone support to Kaiser employees across the country. At first she kept her guard up. “It was my first real job, completely different from working at a grocery store where you wore a uniform and would leave smelling like fried chicken,” Herrera says, laughing. “I was scared that my English wasn’t going to be right, that my hair wouldn’t be what they expected. But once I starting talking to people I realized everyone was relaxed and supportive.”

Even as she loosened up, Herrera remained dead serious about her desire to make a strong impression. She arrived early each day and eagerly took on whatever assignment came her way. Recognizing her potential, one of Herrera’s managers started including her in meetings and giving her new responsibilities. Before long, Herrera was being asked to handle some of the incoming service desk inquiries. “I jumped on the calls and they saw that I was good at it,” she says. “So they said, ‘we need to give you more time on the phones.’”

Three months into her six-month internship, Herrera was offered a one-year contract position to work at the service desk. “I was close to tears,” she recalls. “It was something I not only needed, but really wanted.” In August, seven months after Herrera graduated from Year Up and four months before her contract was set to expire, she was offered a permanent position. When Herrera returned to her desk, she was overcome by the moment, her knees shaking as she texted her fiancé with the news.

As a help desk analyst, Herrera provides wide-ranging levels of phone support for software applications used by Kaiser employees in administrative and patient care settings. “I get to use both my technical know-how and customer service skills,” she says. “It’s very rewarding that I can be so far away from the people I’m talking to, and yet so close to the care that patients receive.”

Best of all, Herrera is excited about what her bright future will mean for Castiel, now 4. “He’s already bilingual,” Herrera says. “He just started preschool and he already knows his A-B-C’s and how to count to 20. He loves when I read books to him. He can tell me the names of all the dinosaurs. He is so much better set up for success because of the sacrifices that my fiancé and I have made.”

The typically gregarious Herrera becomes quiet when she’s asked how that feels. There’s a long pause, and when she finally speaks her voice is full of emotion. “A lot of people took a chance on me in the past two years,” she says. “My fiancé took over the financial responsibilities. My parents helped with our son. The people at Year Up built me up and allowed me to grow. And the people at Kaiser saw something in me and gave me an opportunity to prove myself.

“It feels amazing.”

Year Up Greater Atlanta, Class of January 2018 Currently a Service Desk Technician at Kaiser Permanente