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The Baker Orange

Students balance classes, work, children

Story by Kristopher McDonald

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James Hensley, 21, has spent seemingly endless hours during his life studying for tests, watching game films, writing papers and running routes on the practice field so he could be successful in the classroom and on the football field.

However, the next phase of his life will focus less on exams and end zones and more on dirty diapers and formula, but no one can say James is not prepared to be successful.

After nine months of preparing and reconstructing their lives, James and his wife, Casey, 20, were awaiting the arrival of their baby girl, Payton Elizabeth, who would finally leap into the world Feb. 29, 2008.

When the nurse finally handed Payton to James for the first time, tears rolled down the proud father’s eyes.

“Nine months of anticipation could not prepare me at all,” James said. “It was like a ton of bricks hit me. Seeing she was alive and breathing – Oh, man! It was amazing. It was the greatest moment of my life. I finally had my baby girl in my arms.”

The initial challenge this young couple faced was revealing their addition to the world to their parents.

“I can’t lie; we were definitely scared to tell them,” James said. “But after we told them, they were understanding and excited.”

Casey smirks as she quickly corrects her husband.

“You mean our moms were excited. It took a little while for both of our dads to get used to the idea of me and you being parents,” she said.

James’ father worried about the financial aspect of raising a baby. He worried whether James would be able to continue his education and his football career while supporting a family. Casey’s father worried that the couple was too young to make a good life for a child.

Casey and James set out to prove they could handle the challenge in front of them. The young couple didn’t want to just tell their parents it would be OK; they wanted to show their parents and themselves that they could make it.

In July, the couple moved into a three-bedroom duplex on Washington Street and found roommates to help cut down on the cost of living.

Casey said the couple had to strategically pick their roommates since a newborn baby would soon become the fifth member of the house.

“We just couldn’t live with people who like to party or go out a lot because we knew there couldn’t be a lot of noise when Payton (arrived),” she said.

Then to help support his family, James took out two student loans, received a Pell Grant, got a job and sold his Ford Mustang.

Selling his car was hard for James, but it was something he knew he had to do.

“It was a sacrifice that had to be made,” he said. “I needed a baby carrier, not a sweet ride.”

The couple decided on a Chevy “Baby Carrier,” better known as a Blazer.

The sports utility vehicle is easier for Casey to drive and offers a safe place for Payton to ride. The only problem is sharing the car while running all over Baldwin City to mesh with each other’s hectic schedule.

The pair caught a break, though, when James found a job at a daycare for Casey on a bulletin board in Baker University’s library. It was the perfect fit for Casey.

She would be able to help supplement the family’s income, and upon Payton’s arrival, not have to worry who was watching her during the day.

“It’s great because (I) get to spend time with my baby while I’m working,” Casey said. “Honestly, I don’t think we could have found a better job for me.”

If Casey is a few minutes late because of something James had to do, they don’t have to worry. Her boss understands Casey’s hectic schedule.

Working at the daycare isn’t all Casey does; her other job title is the family accountant. Casey records every dollar the two spend so the couple is never blindsided by an expense.

Looking toward his wife, James laughs and playfully tells of another job Casey has. “Takin’ care of my craziness,” he said.

With school, football, work and a new baby, Casey tries to make it as easy as possible on her husband when he gets home so they can enjoy the little time they have together.

Casey and James know that it has been hard to prepare for a new baby, but they have each found peace from the other.

“Casey is my rock,” James said. “She is the only other person that truly knows what I’m going through. I couldn’t ask for a better wife or friend. I can’t explain how much I love Casey or what this experience has meant to me.”

Looking back on the changes that have taken place over the past few months, this couple knows it hasn’t been easy. They also know it is going to be an extraordinary adventure considering their little girl came into the world on a day that only comes once every four years.

If you are a student in the Midwest with a job that pays less than $38,000 a year and a child you hope will one day go to college, it is going to be an expensive and tiring journey down Adult Avenue.

According to, a parent is likely going to spend $181,432 raising one child. This cost includes housing, food, transportation, clothing, healthcare, childcare/education, college and other miscellaneous items.

Jessica McNellis, 21, knows this scenario all too well. McNellis is a junior at Baker University and the proud mother of a 5-month old baby girl, Shea Elizabeth Vasquez.

When she first found out she was pregnant, McNellis was told she would never be able to raise a child and finish college at the same time.

Many people told her to take a break from school and focus on her child, but McNellis wanted to prove her doubters wrong.

“I decided I was going to finish my education now so I will be able to give my daughter the life she deserves sooner rather than later,” she said. “It’s really hard right now, but it will all be worth it when I get my degree.”

Like many young mothers, McNellis has put her own interests aside to focus on what is best for Shea.

Before most Baker students have hit the snooze button for the first time, McNellis has already begun a day that would make Clark Kent envious as she seamlessly switches roles throughout the day.

During the week, McNellis wakes up just as the roosters are crowing to get Shea dressed and fed before making the trip down I-35 from Overland Park to her first stop in Wellsville at Shea’s daycare center.

Once Shea is in good hands, McNellis jumps back into her car and drives the short distance to Baldwin City, making it just in time for her 8 a.m. class.

It isn’t always easy for McNellis to focus on her schoolwork during class when someone else has her baby.

She worries that her daughter won’t recognize her when she picks her up, or maybe she will think someone at the daycare is her mommy. McNellis knows those thoughts are unrealistic but still worries about her child.

“I just love her,” she said. “I love seeing my baby.”

When McNellis’ last class finishes at 3:20 p.m. she hurries to her car, switches from student back to mom and goes to Wellsville to get Shea.

This is the point where this mother’s day gets even more hectic. On the way back to Overland Park, McNellis calls her boyfriend to see where he is. She must find a way to get Shea to her daddy and make it to work on time.

“It’s hard sometimes because he works a lot, too, and we try to work around each other’s schedule,” McNellis said.

Eventually, the young parents meet up and Shea goes with her father while McNellis heads off to work at Sonic in Overland Park.

McNellis works 15 hours a week at Sonic and took on a second job when the Baker University Phonathon began.

To help reduce expenses, McNellis and her boyfriend moved in with her parents in Overland Park, where they do not have to worry about rent while she finishes school.

“My parents have been great,” she said. “I still have a ton of other bills, but not having to pay rent really helps right now.”

McNellis has a major challenge in front of her and many obstacles to overcome as a young mother. She doesn’t worry, though. She knows that with her boyfriend’s help and her baby’s love, she can get through it.

“Sometimes, of course, I get frustrated and tired,” McNellis said almost reluctantly.

Then, with a proud mother’s smile she continues, “That’s when I just hold Shea and talk to her and kiss her and tell her how much I love her. That’s when I know it’s all worth it.”


Take one step into Phil Hannon’s office and two things are obvious: he loves his family, and he loves baseball.

With pictures of his family and his teams adorning the walls of his office, it’s not hard to see what drives this man each day.

Ask him about his family or his baseball team, and he won’t be able to contain his excitement as the words just pour out of his mouth. Ask him about an obstacle he overcame in his life and silence might follow. That’s Phil Hannon.

He does not look back on his life with any regrets; instead, he reflects on how the events of his life made him a better man.

It was the beginning of the summer of 1985. Hannon had just completed his junior year at Baker University, where he was a two-sport star in football and baseball. For 2 1/2 years, he had been dating a member of Delta Delta Delta sorority named Charlene who had just graduated. Oh yes, Charlene was eight months pregnant.

Now, the thought of having a child and being a student-athlete would scare the hell out of many, but Hannon knew it was time to grow up. It was an event, not an obstacle, in his life that would make him a better man.

The young couple got started on its new life by moving into a one-bedroom apartment just off of Ames Street in Baldwin City. Charlene had already been working at a coffee shop in Lawrence saving money for the family’s expenses. Phil took on a job in Kansas City, Mo., as a delivery man for Miller High Life after his baseball season was complete.

On June 12, 1985, Phil and Charlene welcomed their baby boy, Andrew, into the world. Phil said they were lucky Andy was a summer baby because it gave them a few months to get used to the idea of being parents before school started again.

When the school year did roll around, Phil had another challenge to overcome. When he took the job at Miller High Life, he knew he wouldn’t have time for two-a-days on the football field if he ever wanted to see his son, so he had to quit football.

The problem was he still felt the burning passion to play, so he went into head coach Dan Harris’ office and spoke to former athletic director Charlie Richard and Harris about getting back on the team.

Richard and Harris allowed him his roster spot but told him he had to prove he wanted to be there. Then, Hannon took time off of work when school started.

“It wasn’t easy to get back on that team, but I wanted it bad enough, so I worked hard to show I deserved to be there,” Hannon said.

Ask Hannon if he has any regrets about the decisions he has made and he will laugh.

“There might be a few things I wish I would have done a little bit differently, but do I regret anything?” Hannon said. “No way, I have a great family, and I love my job. Why would I want to change anything?”

Ask Phil Hannon what his favorite memory from college would be, and he reflects on times with his son.

“Andy and I used go out in the parking lot and play around for hours it seemed like,” Hannon said. “We always tossed a ball around or something whenever I had free time.”

Finally, ask Phil Hannon if he wishes he had waited to start a family and once again, he smiles.

“I know having a child while you’re still in school isn’t the easiest thing ever, but you kind of grow into it,” Hannon said. “It is scary, but you get to grow up with ’em.”

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