PALMETTO, Fla. — Almost five years ago, Shawna Machado’s story unexpectedly went viral.
At the time, she was 40 years old and had just received the Outstanding Graduate award from the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee, along with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, when a reporter approached her with a seemingly innocuous question. “Do you live in Bradenton or Sarasota?” he asked. For Machado, that was a difficult question.
“I told him I lived in both,” she said, but he continued to push for a specific answer. “So I said, ‘I’m homeless, so I live in both,’ and he said, ‘You need to tell people — that’s so inspiring.’ I never thought it would be as big as it was.”
Soon, Machado’s story was everywhere. She was covered by national and local publications. Nearly six months later, an appearance on the Steve Harvey Show yielded a surprising reward of a $30,000 scholarship provided by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and USFSM so Machado could complete her master’s degree in social work.
Now, Machado has come full circle from those whirlwind days of media attention to a quieter fulfillment: She graduated Monday night from USFSM with her master’s. The social work student received her degree at the Bradenton Area Convention Center with more than 220 other students. Of 350 degrees conferred, 66 were master’s.
After completing her program in roughly three years, Machado is looking ahead.
“It’s definitely a chapter I’ve finished, so that’s a good feeling,” Machado said. “But I feel like there’s so many things in front of me that I need to accomplish before I get to where I want to be. It’s just one phase that’s closed; it’s not this excitement that I’ve arrived.”
Her next step is to choose between the numerous job offers she’s received, all while balancing her current position as adoption case manager for the Safe Children Coalition. Machado started volunteering there five years ago and has become an employee. Her background as a victim of abuse as a child, as well as observing the domestic violence her mother suffered, helps her relate to what many children in the foster care system have experienced.
Still, some days are easier than others. She hopes the system will become less punitive.
“I think of what some of these kids have gone through and that they’re still plugging along. I don’t know that I could do it,” Machado said. “The things that we do to them while they’re in the system, I just really want to educate people about trauma and educate them that giving pills or putting such strong restrictions isn’t good for that.”
When her story went public, Machado initially received waves of calls from people offering their homes and help. But one stood out — from 79-year-old June Faunce, a woman in south Sarasota for whom Machado had dog-sat.
“I called her and I said, ‘You will never not have a place to go; you can come here,’” Faunce said. When Machado was about to ask for “a really big favor,” Faunce said, “‘You’re coming to live with me,’ before she said anything.”
Faunce and Machado have lived together now for almost three years. Machado pays rent and spends much of her time out studying, working or meeting people. But she and Faunce often watch “The Bachelor” together, where they will “diss on all of the girls and the guy,” Faunce said.
Before Machado’s graduation, the two women had their hair done and painted their nails, an experience Faunce likened to “getting ready for a wedding.” There may be a wedding in Machado’s future soon enough, as she recently got engaged to her boyfriend of a year.
“It’s wonderful what she’s done with her life,” Faunce said. “I asked her one day if it bothered her to talk to these kids that have had tough upbringings, and she said it’s just the opposite, because she can understand better what they’re going through.”
For the long-term, Machado bounces around a few ideas in her head. Maybe she’ll pursue a doctorate in sociology or complete a second master’s degree. Or perhaps she’ll run for County Commission and work on accommodations for Sarasota’s homeless, an issue clearly close to her heart.
While Machado still has many decisions yet to make, she is sure of the fact that she loves this town and wants to stay here. In fact, she even has a special nickname because of it: Shawnasota.