Amber Carpenter, 20, West Plains

Monday, July 2, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

WEST PLAINS, March 3 — A baby wasn't part of the plan for 20-year-old Amber Carpenter. But then neither was the cancer which was going to kill her father. While trying to accept the devastating news about her father, Amber and her boyfriend Steven decided on a last big gift for her father: his first grandchild.

"It was important to me because (my dad) and me were really close," Carpenter said. "And we never really talked about him dying because it was hard to talk about, but I just knew that I wanted him to get that chance."

Addyson Nichole Gall was born on April 1, 2011. Her grandfather's eyes and smile grew wide when he met her for the first time in the hospital hallway. Twenty-two days later, he died.

I met Amber Carpenter while I was reporting in West Plains, in southwestern Missouri. She was one of the five girls lined up around a table in a dorm room on the Missouri State University campus. She is the only one of the five who doesn't live in the dorm. She stays at home, in Mountain View, with her boyfriend and her baby girl — her own little family — and takes online classes. But she has known the other girls forever. They became friends during Ms. Riley’s seventh-grade English class.

Carpenter's American Dream means a well-paying job, a loving family and the possibility to move out of "the middle of nowhere" southwestern Missouri. She'd like to become a psychologist and have her own little office in a city, maybe in St. Louis. That way, Addyson would have the opportunity to go to a better school. But Carpenter still needs to figure things out, including how to deal with her boyfriend's emotional highs and lows. Most important, she learned that plans don't work the way they're supposed to. Better, sometimes, to stop making plans and "go with the flow."

This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times

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