La'Kendra Deitche's story makes her an improbable candidate to walk across a Memorial Coliseum stage and accept a diploma this week.
Given what she overcame to earn a degree, La'Kendra is a likely candidate to cross many more stages in her lifetime. Good things await the 28-year-old woman who faced epileptic seizures, sexual abuse, abandonment, poverty, domestic violence and the worst of the child protection system to earn a Purdue University Fort Wayne diploma and admission to a top law school.
“I know there was a horror show for her growing up,” South Side High School teacher Renee Albright said last week. “Somehow, there's something in that young lady that has kept her leaning toward light. Even when she was at the worst in high school – not feeling connected – she knew to lean toward healthy; to lean toward love and light.”
La'Kendra Deitche's story is a testament to personal resolve and strength. It's also a story of the life-changing power of caring educators – in this case, teachers who literally became her family.
After commencement Friday, La'Kendra is headed to the Indiana Supreme Court's Conference for Legal Education Opportunity Summer Institute, a rigorous six-week program designed to immerse underrepresented students in courses simulating first-year law studies. In August, she's off to Maurer School of Law at Indiana University Bloomington, where she will study on the same campus where she once flunked out.
“It's always been a roller-coaster ride, but I think inside I've always had this drive that there has to be something better out there, and I'm finally on my way to finding it,” La'Kendra said in an interview on the PFW campus this month. “I always realized I could have a good life, but I'm not going to be fulfilled unless I'm helping others.”
La'Kendra was born in southern Indiana and spent her early years there. She matter-of-factly describes her biological mother as abusive. Indiana child protection officials were aware but did not help, she said.
“I know the problems with my family are not new, a lot of families have them,” La'Kendra said. “They mandated counseling for my mother, but she didn't come. They assigned us a Black caseworker, and she was very much of the 'your mom has seven children and is a single mother – you just need to behave.' ”
Indiana Department of Child Services representatives warned the young girl about acting out.
“They said, 'You are a juvenile delinquent because you are always fighting.' But it was like, yes, because if I leave it up to you, you are going to send me back home to my mother, who is (letting people abuse) me. So, yeah, I'm going to hit some kid at school so then I don't have to go there.”
Detention facilities followed, including one that La'Kendra said was eventually shut down by the state. She was about 11 or 12 years old, she recalled, suffering from epileptic seizures child protection officials somehow failed to notice.
“There were so many times when someone could have stepped in and made it better, and then DCS got involved and didn't make it better; they just put it all on me,” she said. “I know Black women stand in solidarity, but they can't be like, 'She's a single mother, so I'm not going to be in her business.' That's not how it works. I fell through the cracks. When I fill out law school applications, I have to put that, yes, I was arrested as a juvenile.”
La'Kendra's biological mother terminated parental rights when her daughter was 13. From group homes and detention facilities, the young girl's next move was to Fort Wayne. Authorities advised she wasn't a good candidate for adoption as she neared 16, so they sought placement with a family member. She had met her biological father only twice, but they found him living here.
“They didn't even come inside to look at the house, and they didn't know his phone number or anything. They just kind of dropped me off on his porch a week before my 16th birthday,” La'Kendra said. “He was ... in and out of jail.”
'Always on my side'
But the move to Fort Wayne gave La'Kendra her first experience with caring adults – teachers at South Side who began watching out for her. One, in particular, was special.
“I had an English teacher – Marianne Deitche,” La'Kendra said. “She's been (at South Side) 25 years, and I had her husband (Joseph Deitche) for a semester of algebra. They were always just the nicest people to me. She would let me stay, before and after school. They were always on my side.”
Marianne Deitche remembers La'Kendra's first day in her classroom, well into the school year when only a back-row seat was available.
“She didn't smile,” the veteran teacher recalled. “She always did her work and she did her work well. After she was finished she would pull out one of the Harry Potter books and start reading – just immerse herself in the book. She was always polite; she rarely spoke.
“I'm the type of teacher who, if I see someone like that – especially if they are a new student at South Side – I make it my mission to get in there and pull them out of their shell a little bit.”
They first connected with discussions about La'Kendra's reading. Then Marianne Deitche gave her an assignment: By the end of the week, walk down the hallway, smile at someone and say hi.
“This look of distrust came over her face. You would have thought I had asked her to cut off her left foot,” Marianne Deitche said. “But she did it. I checked with her the next couple of days and she finally did it – so, what happened? 'They just kind of said hi back.' See, it wasn't hard at all!”
A small group of teachers took La'Kendra under wing: Marianne and husband Joe, Albright, Trina Riley, Beth Sanchez and Kim Roebuck.
Albright, who taught La'Kendra's philosophy class, said she seemed to do fine in the classroom.
“I think it was her safe place, to be at school,” she said. “A lot of kids have come through our doors at South Side and said this place feels like family. It's not because of a program – it's because of people like the Deitches, who just inhabit the building. (With La'Kendra) they just connected.”
The South Side teachers stayed in touch after La'Kendra left for college in the fall of 2011. Indiana's 21st Century Scholar Program, for academically qualified students from low-income households, covered her tuition. But the first-generation college student needed support the university didn't offer.
“When I went to IU, I was still living with my biological father,” she said. “We barely had enough to eat. I think he missed my high school graduation because he was in jail. I didn't have anyone to take me to the traditional (college) orientation, and to do the 'we're going to figure out your major and get you an adviser.' ”
A family friend dropped her off in Bloomington before classes started.
“I didn't have food; I didn't have soap. Nothing. I knew I would get a reimbursement, but no one even told me to get a bank account so they could make a direct deposit,” she said. “I didn't have money for textbooks, so I was behind for about a month because where was I going to get money for textbooks? I barely had enough to eat until meal plans started.”
Meeting with an adviser, she was asked to name a major.
“What do I pick? Criminal justice? I kind of want to go to law school. Do I want to go pre-med? I don't know – where is the person who is supposed to help me? 'No, just pick your classes.' So I picked criminal justice,” La'Kendra recalled. “Then I leave the building and I have no way to find my dorm. I walked around for five hours on that campus. It was so hot and I had no money for water. I was trying to figure out, where is my dorm? I finally got the courage to ask a woman, and she said, 'I don't know; I'm a grad student.' ”
She eventually found her way around campus, but not academically. She was married for a brief time while at IU – “It was bad,” La'Kendra said. Failing her courses, she won an appeal to stay in school.
But her South Side teachers were watching out for her.
“Mrs. Deitche and her husband – my mom and dad – would come down and take me to dinner and make sure I had everything I needed. I remember her asking me if I had winter clothes that first year, and I said no. So the next day this huge box came from Kohl's – clothes and boots and coats. I'm thinking, so this is what it means to be cared for? I want that.”
Marianne Deitche said the idea of making La'Kendra part of the family had been long discussed.
“Over the year or two she was in my two English classes and she was in (Joe's) class,” she said, “there were just signs that things were not the way they should be. She and I grew pretty darn close, and so did the two of them. I can remember sitting here in my living room with him one night and saying to him, 'If La'Kendra ever needs a place to live, are you OK with her staying here?' We talked about what that meant, and we both agreed that definitely we would be open to bringing her into our family.”
That happened after Marianne and Roebuck had dinner with La'Kendra during spring break of her freshman year. La'Kendra had been married for a few months by that time.
“She said a couple of things, and I looked at Kim. 'Did I hear what I think I just heard?' Finally, I looked at La'Kendra and said, 'Is your husband beating you?' It took her a minute and she said yes, but it was OK. We looked at her and said, 'It's not OK. We'll take you home tonight – pack all your stuff, everything – like you are taking it back to IU. At summer break, you'll move in with us.' ”
After La'Kendra failed out of IU in her second year, she moved permanently into the Deitches' home.
Turning it around
La'Kendra began healing and building a new life, with a few more bumps along the way. She enrolled in Ivy Tech Community College for a semester, then IPFW, where she again failed her courses. She took a semester off before returning to Ivy Tech to earn an associate degree in 2018. La'Kendra returned to PFW, planning to pursue criminal justice studies. She didn't get much encouragement, based on her past performance in the program. That's when she went to the political science department.
“I met with Dr. (Michael) Wolf and told him I didn't think I was smart enough to be a political science person,” she said. “He explained it was a lot of reading and it was not for the weak, but he said he believed I could do it.”
In an interview, Wolf recalled La'Kendra's first visit. When she mentioned she might be interested in law school, he took her to an adjacent office to include associate professor Georgia Ulmschneider, the university's pre-law adviser, in the conversation.
La'Kendra was suddenly choked with emotion: “Do you think there's any chance for someone who has failed out to go to law school?” she asked.
“Georgia and I looked at each other and said, 'This is what we do. Absolutely,' ” Wolf said.
La'Kendra's success at Purdue Fort Wayne didn't come as a surprise, but it came with effort, according to the political science department chair.
“When she first came, I could tell her confidence wasn't high, so we really tracked her closely as she was going through, and we would – on the side – ask how she's doing,” Wolf said. “We mentor our students pretty closely. She's really good about following through to see what she needs to be doing. Nothing has been easy for her, but she's just a champ. Our department is not for everyone – it's a challenging degree. She took it all on and she did great.”
In 2020, La'Kendra was honored as the Sen. Thomas J. Wyss Scholar, an award established by the IPFW graduate and former state senator. Preference was for the scholarship to be given to a South Side graduate; La'Kendra is the first Archer to receive it. This year, she was awarded the Ulmschneider Prize in Political Science, a scholarship endowed by Fort Wayne attorney Mark Ulmschneider, Georgia Ulmschneider's husband.
She will graduate this week debt free, having worked one or two jobs to cover her college costs. Signing loan documents and a promissory note for law school this month, she is carefully monitoring her financial burden.
Wolf credits Georgia Ulmschneider with helping La'Kendra find her path to law school, encouraging her to apply to 10 programs with emphasis on the public interest law field she hopes to pursue.
“She is amazing at being able to work with students to cultivate a narrative about what they want to do in law – so it's not only about getting into law school, it's also about succeeding,” Wolf said.
With a solid score on the Law School Admission Test, La'Kendra won admission to multiple programs. She chose IU-Bloomington because it looked to be a good path toward someday establishing a nonprofit foundation, which she was inspired to do after reading Michelle Obama's book “Becoming.”
Mental health professionals also played an important role in La'Kendra's success.
“I was never big on therapy because my therapists quit on me,” she said. “But I got a Black woman at Park Center as a therapist, for the first time. Oh, my gosh, she was a miracle worker. When I got there, I was a hot mess. By the time she moved to Indy, it was like 'I'm doing this.' ”
La'Kendra said she's now working with another Black female therapist, continuing to work on past trauma.
“Why doesn't my (biological) mom want me? Why does she tell me to kill myself? Why does she let people abuse me?” she said. “OK, that all hurts and it is in the past. You are going to go and be an excellent Black woman because you can be.”
The key to her success with therapy, however, goes back to the Deitches. Their Fort Wayne home was the grounding experience she needed. She hasn't had a seizure in more than a year.
“Living here, I could go home and talk to my mom if I had a bad day or a bad class,” La'Kendra said. “I went from skipping classes all the time to sleep and a messed-up schedule and mental health problems to having counselors and psychiatrists and being on my medicine and not having seizures all the time. Now I can work two jobs and go to class and get a decent amount of sleep. If I'm slipping, I have a lot of people who say, 'Hey, that's not going to work for us.'
“I needed more of a childhood – someone looking over my shoulder. I don't need that as much anymore, or really at all. I live at home, and my parents know every detail of my day, but they don't ever have to say, 'La'Kendra – did you take your medicine or did you go to sleep?' They've given me the tools and raised me up so I can do it myself.”
Albright, the philosophy teacher, said La'Kendra had opportunities largely because the Deitches mentored her.
“(They made) a beautiful connection. There's something very supportive and peaceful about the Deitches, and I think that's exactly what La'Kendra needed. It's a family,” she said. “She got stronger and more courageous, and that's a beautiful part of having them behind her, not just as friends but as parents. Tough love when it's necessary, but it gave her solid ground to stand on for the first time ever.”
“We definitely had a close connection early on,” Marianne Deitche said. “She hadn't been with us very long when she asked if she could call us mom and dad. She was very nervous about it. But it just made sense and it felt right when she asked. We're just blessed she wants to call us mom and dad.”
The adoption idea was La'Kendra's, but the Deitches were on board. When the local bar association had a “talk to a lawyer” event at Allen County Public Library, they took advantage of it to learn about adult adoption. On Dec. 11, 2019, La'Kendra, age 26, was adopted by Marianne and Joseph Deitche.
“We had been talking to her about law school before she knew she was interested in law,” Marianne Deitche said. “She is an A-1 arguer. When my husband was still teaching and had summers off, one of the things they would do would be to go to the Courthouse and sit in on trials. They did that for two summers.”
On those excursions, La'Kendra met Tasha Lee, an Allen County deputy prosecutor who talked to her about studying the law. At her adoption proceeding, then-Magistrate (now Judge) Lori Morgan also advised La'Kendra on career options.
“I know La'Kendra is going to do amazing things,” Marianne Deitche said. “She has a heart the size of Texas. She wants only good things for people in the world and she is willing to battle to make sure it happens.”
Her life experience offers many lessons: for the officials entrusted with protecting children at risk; for universities serving first-generation students; for policymakers who want to believe everyone can lift themselves up by their bootstraps.
But there are young people who aren't even afforded the bootstraps. They need people who care – people like the public school educators who took La'Kendra into their hearts; people like the public university faculty who nurtured her and set her on a career path.
“When people talk public education, they seem to talk about the kids as leftovers,” said Albright, a South Side teacher for 35 years. “Our kids are just as brilliant – maybe more, because they've had to figure it out. They've found all of these MacGyver ways to get to adulthood.
“The hurt in my heart is there are La'Kendras everywhere. There are blooms all over, and the kids are just fighting through the weeds of what they have come from. La'Kendra's case deals with abuse and neglect and violence and all kinds of things, but we've got some kids whose parents love them very much and they do everything they can, but the poverty is crippling for them. We've got a lot them floating around. It's just a matter of getting them from one gate to another.”
The good news is La'Kendra Deitche will undoubtedly be one of the people helping move kids from one gate to another. Her passion is to someday help Black and brown kids like herself. She will succeed.
Karen Francisco is editorial page editor of The Journal Gazette.