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2013 June 24 - 12:00 am

STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Ill. Student Clears Hurdles To Follow Mom’s Footsteps

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) — Chastity Cunningham says she gets her determination from hermother.

Gloria Farias was a veteran police officer who worked hard alongside her husband to provide for Cunningham and the couple’s two other children until Farias died from a brain aneurysm 10 yearsago.

“Mom was a strong person, very strong, and she taught us not to give up on our dream,” Cunningham recalls. “She’s why I am the way I amnow.”

Her example is also why the 37-year-old Decatur woman continues to pursue every avenue to follow her mother’s path into law enforcement, up to and including an application to be pardoned by the state of Maryland for a 2005 assault conviction barring her way.

Cunningham has just earned an associate degree in criminal justice from Richland Community College and is looking for work in hopes of eventually getting a bachelor’s degree at Millikin University.

“I’m not a bad person,” she said. “I just made a badchoice.”

Cunningham is upfront about how, at age 29, she punched a woman and ripped out a handful of her hair after discovering her in bed with her then-fiancé in October2005.

The Presbyterian child care facility hired her as a child care counselor anyway after she married a different man and moved to Decatur in2007.

But she was fired after seven months when a background check revealed second-degree assault conviction. It may have been a misdemeanor in Maryland, but it was a felony inIllinois.

She went to the former Community Support Advisory Council, Decatur’s prison re-entry collaborative at the time, about her troubles finding work, and eventually was hired as night desk clerk/auditor at the Decatur Conference Center andHotel.

Cunningham left less than a year later after she became pregnant with her son, Cameron, born in 2010. She then became one of the first clients at New Life Pregnancy Center, hired to work part time at the center’s thrift store when it opened in2011.

She gave up that job as well, however, to focus on finishing her classes at Richland. Her husband, Jerry Cunningham, has supported the family ever since on his wages from Caterpillar Inc.

Many of her mentors have written letters in support of her quest for a pardon. They include detective Barry Hitchens of the Decatur Police Department and Richland criminal justice instructor Art PowersJr.

Lt. Jonathan Butts of the Macon County Sheriff’s Office said he has no regrets about taking her on as an intern this spring to satisfy a requirement of her associate degree. “She’s very forthright and appears to be a great, great person,” hesaid.

Leslie Kent of the New Life Pregnancy Center, in a letter of recommendation, wrote that Cunningham wept when she was offered a job working at the New Life Thrift Shoppe.

“Chastity Cunningham is a woman who understands the immensity of second chances,” Kent wrote. “She is living a life of integrity and wants to make a difference in this community. I am honored to knowher.”

Cunningham said she wants to help her husband provide for their son and give him the role model her mother gaveher.

“I used to ride with her (on duty) from the time I was 12,” she said. “I am not going to give up until I get where I want tobe.”

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