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MOTHER INSPIRES PURSUIT OF DEGREE BUT HARDSHIPS NOW INTERVENE

Heroes often are separated from their admirers by some psychological or physical distance.

That isn't the case with Naomi Jett and her daughter, Toni Williams, who is Ms. Jett's greatest fan.

When Ms. Jett received her education degree from Medaille College last May at age 60, Ms. Williams, 21, was the proudest person in
the audience. Most inspired, too. The daughter followed in her mother's footsteps by enrolling at Medaille this fall -- picking up where she left off when she dropped out of high school four years ago.

"My role model," Ms. Williams calls her mother.

They drew still closer when Lorenzo Williams, in search of a career to support Toni -- then his fiance -- and daughters Benisha, 2, and Jessica, 11 months, enlisted in the Navy. After he departed for basic training in San Diego last spring, Ms. Jett, who teaches at the Head Start Academy, invited her daughter and granddaughters to move in with her.

Subsequent events further complicated matters. No sooner were Toni and Lorenzo married in October than he got orders to ship out for the Persian Gulf, where he is a radio operator aboard the USS Wisconsin. The call to arms scuttled the couple's plan to set up housekeeping at Norfolk Naval Base, where he had been stationed, and the brief honeymoon left Ms. Williams expecting another child.

Now she is fighting to keep her educational dream afloat and manage her growing family on Williams' military pay -- a mere $292 a month.

Ms. Williams and Ms. Jett divide expenses and baby-sitting duties in a Kensington neighborhood apartment. When her mother finishes teaching weekdays, Ms. Williams picks her up in Ms. Jett's car and leaves Benisha and Jessica with her while she goes to night classes at Medaille.

In contrast to a year ago, when Toni and Lorenzo together could afford Christmas gifts for Benisha, the family now has no money to indulge either her or Jessica, who badly needs winter clothing. Food, milk and diapers consume most of Williams' check.

The young mother's worries are compounded by the red tape that is delaying delivery of the military identification card that helps dependents of servicemen receive government-paid health care. She can only pray that she and the children stay healthy through the winter -- or until the card arrives.

She, meanwhile, is keeping her eye on the prize -- a degree in elementary education. She ultimately wants to to help lift young people from the city's poor neighborhoods who might be tempted to give up on their education, as she once did.

"I'd like to open my own center to help kids get self-esteem and get them involved in positive things," said Ms. Williams, who earned a high school equivalency degree and is using grants and loans to further her studies at Medaille.

She also is looking forward to reuniting with her husband -- hopefully after the Persian Gulf crisis ends peacefully.

"I'm sorry it had to happen after he decided to enter the Navy. I'm sorry it had to happen at all," said Ms. Williams, who also has two brothers in the Navy. "But he did it for his family. I think he'll be all right. He's strong.

"And in the end, working for myself and for the kids like this will make me better."

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