“I grew up on Medicaid and food stamps; we didn’t have running water in the house,” Outing says, describing how her family washed clothes outside and ran cords from other homes to get electricity.
Successful in school – she was an AP honor roll student who played volleyball, basketball and drums – she nevertheless lacked confidence. “I thought I was less-than because I came from a poor family. My friends had nice houses when I spent the night with them. I was ashamed of my living conditions because it was so different.”
Outing, 47, grew up in rural Gadsden, in lower Richland County. At 12, when she realized her mother was using drugs, she crossed the street to live with her grandmother. And there she stayed until she moved out at 16 to be with her boyfriend. Who was controlling. Who didn’t like it when she graduated from high school and went to college, causing her to drop out. And whom she married at 21 after their first son was born and stayed with when their second son arrived four years later.
It was a chaotic life, but one she turned around to help others. As a regional liaison with the Carolina Family Engagement Center (CFEC), a federal grant project within the University of South Carolina College of Education, Outing connects rural families like hers to the schools and services that can help them. Education, she believes, can change any life for the better. So driven as a student that she cried when she made anything lower than an A, Outing stayed on her sons about doing their homework and making good grades. She preached the importance – particularly for African Americans – of getting a college education. To increase their chances of getting scholarships, she had them playing sports, learning music to be church musicians, and taking public speaking classes.
“I wanted them to be successful in something, and I definitely wanted them to have that spiritual connection,” she says.
Outing had her sons so busy they told her she couldn’t understand how hard it was to maintain the grades to stay on the Honor Roll.
Then the threesome made a bet. “I said if I can be a mother, a wife, work a fulltime job, go to school and make As, then you have to do the same thing. And I have two master’s degrees, a bachelor’s and an associate’s – and I got them all after having children.”
Those college degrees didn’t come easy. Outing went back and forth in her marriage before ending it and moving out for good. At one point she and her boys lived with her grandmother and then an aunt and uncle; at another they slept on the floor of a cousin’s house. Eventually she was able to buy a house and move into it, then she bought another one in a more successful school district and rented out the first. She knew that to improve a life marked by poverty she’d need to access available resources for support, including programs for food and health care. Those benefits sustained them, allowing her to work and save money until they no longer needed them. If she could climb out of poverty, others can too, she says.
I want to make sure families are aware of available resources and understand how they can thrive and be successful despite their current situation. You can still get ahead. It doesn’t make you less of a person to accept help if you need it.”
After completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, Outing learned she qualified for grants and loans to help pay for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at South University. When she developed breast cancer in 2014, she qualified for a Medicaid program to help with surgeries, doctor visits and medications. By the time she enrolled in USC’s Master of Public Health program in 2018, she’d worked for the university for six years; she knew to use the USC employee reimbursement program to finance that degree. She was working at the Arnold School of Public Health by that time, coordinating the colorectal cancer program.
All told, it took her 14 years to get her higher education. Along the way she graduated as a fellow of the SC Educational Policy Fellowship program, became a state notary public and got certified in CPR. Those skills and experiences have helped her assist families in the Pee Dee district she serves.
“I’m able to meet parents where they are. I understand how they can get caught up in their surroundings. Sometimes people can’t see their way out. I have empathy for them and for those struggling to find their way out. Everybody has a story and looks can be deceiving.”
Working alongside members of School Improvement Councils, Outing has helped with events that bring parents, educators, students and community members together. At Clarendon County School District’s Winter Educational Festival, she and Robert Oliver, a teacher and parent liaison, presented a session on how elementary school parents can engage with their children’s education. With Randall Lowder, who graduated from the PLP program and became president of the Manning Junior High School (MJHS) School Improvement Council, she and others helped create the district’s first MJHS Reality Check Expo.
The result of a conversation about how students need more than an academic education to succeed in life, the Expo drew about 150 Manning eighth graders and various community professionals to the junior high school gym. There students visited different stations to learn about buying a car and car insurance, renting an apartment or buying a home, writing a check and paying bills, and determining whether they will go into the workforce or continue their education at a university or technical college. The Expo was so successful plans are underway for another next year. “My life itself drives my motivation to get things established,” she says. “I want kids to know what the real world is like.”
She also has supported the establishment of three Community Family Resource Centers (CFRCs) in Clarendon County through funding from the South Carolina Department of Education. CFRCs are in places families regularly visit and provide high quality displays of free school materials in English and Spanish. Outing placed hers in a laundromat and pediatric doctors’ office in Manning and in a community development center in Paxville. She also helped incorporate Book Vending Machines in a Summerton barbershop and laundromats in Turbeville and Manning. She knows how difficult it can be for poor rural families to access school information and materials and these CFRCs and Book Vending Machines make things a bit easier.
The bright side
People who meet Ranina Outing are struck by her smiling composure. It’s not a mask. “I’ve always tried to find the joy in things, the positive in stuff,” she says.
Despite her poverty, she says she was rich in family and protected by their love. Her mother, a first-generation college graduate and former nurse who has been drug- free for nine years, is one of nine children. That meant 26 first cousins for Outing to grow up with, mostly playing outdoors in the neighborhood they shared. She sang in the church choir, joined the Girl Scouts. She fantasized about becoming a pharmacist so she could do good things with drugs, unlike her mother and uncles.
That dream dissolved as her unhealthy marriage progressed. Her focus became her sons.
“I’ve been that person who would stand up for my children and was driven to make sure they were taken care of,” she says. She was less pushy, less vocal, about her own needs. Her bet with her sons triggered her personal ambition, and her confidence increased with every accomplishment. Her sons didn’t do badly either.
Anton, 24, and Anthony, 28, kept their part of the bet – making the honor roll, graduating from high school and college. Anton is a Clemson University graduate and first lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves, and currently an active-duty commander over 21 soldiers in Europe. Anthony graduated from USC Beaufort and works at Trane Technologies as a production supervisor. Both are entrepreneurs, with side businesses.
“My two children have been my inspiration all along,” Outing says. “I take so much pride in being a great example for them while making sure they have strong support. I have never given up, nor wanted to.”
The Carolina Family Engagement Center is housed in the SC School Improvement Council at the College of Education at the University of South Carolina and is funded by federal grants #U310A180058 and #S320A230032. The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not represent views of the U.S. Department of Education.