She sees herself as a survivor; someone who made it out of poverty and despair despite having a mentally ill mom who was in and out of hospitals for up to eight months at a time.

Her father would send her and her brother to live with relatives because he could not take care of them. He was an alcoholic.

The family lived in a 10-by-10 brick shack in Jamaica.

Dr. Yvonne Commodore, 49, of Huger isn’t seeking sympathy. She shares her story to show others they, too, can survive.

She found peace in books. “I read a lot. Education became a big part of my life. I could control my grades (if) not my life.”

If Commodore, a motivational speaker and author, has a mantra, it is: “Don’t let your circumstances dictate your future.”

It’s also what she tells students at rural Lincoln Middle High School in McClellanville; she is their principal.

High expectations

The school and the area reminds Commodore of her hometown in Jamaica; the children are smart but poor and lack exposure and resources. But the community is strong, close-knit and willing to provide support.

Commodore, who has served as a social worker, a teacher and a pastor, believes her charge as principal is to help students to believe in themselves. “I am not just their principal; I am on a mission of empowerment.”

Having high expectations for children makes them strive to meet expectations, she said.

In 2009, the school’s graduation rate was 66 percent; now it’s 76 percent. “We are closing the gap,” she said.

The school holds assemblies and debates daily to help students find their voices. “Every day, we tell them they are wonderful, and we celebrate them.”

Commodore balances praise with accountability; both are necessary for success, she said.

Embrace your background

God, the church and education played a major role in Commodore’s life. Actually, it’s how she was able to come to America at 17.

A relative told a New Jersey pastor on mission work in Jamaica of Commodore’s plight. The pastor offered her a chance to attend college in America after high school in 1980.

Commodore jumped at the chance, cleaning houses and baby-sitting to help pay for college. She remains grateful to the late Rev. Geneva Crudup.

Now, Commodore, married with two children and two grands, encourages everyone to share their personal stories; it could help someone else.

It’s a shame to hide where you came from. “It would rob someone of the testimony of a survivor. We need more examples of survivors.”

Commodore’s mother suffers from bipolar disorder.

She said the stigma of mental illness was tough growing up. One of the most difficult aspects for her was going to school after her mother had one of her manic episodes where she would disrobe and run into the streets.

But when her mother was well “she was the most loving person you could ever meet. She would always tell me that I was beautiful.” With only a second-grade education, Commodore’s mother told her: “You need to learn to read because I don’t know how.”

Commodore’s new book, “I Know Why My Daughters are Crying,” to be released in March, tells women how to cope with 42 of life’s most common trials.

Reach Assistant Features Editor Shirley A. Greene at 937-5555.