When I first met James, in the spring of 2012, he was living with his mother and two younger siblings in a room at the Union Rescue Mission on Los Angeles’s Skid Row.
In a room full of excited and hyper kids, James immediately stood out from the other kids, with his soft-spoken air of intelligence and protective nature towards his siblings.
After a lengthy phone conversation with “Mondays at the Mission” founder Christopher Kai, I was asked, at the last moment, to share my story with teens in residence at the shelter: my mother and I were homeless for nearly six years, until I was removed to foster care. Since those darker days, I’ve managed to get both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and become a productive member of society. At the end, I emphasized my message of hope, and explained that the kids shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help when they needed it. I offered my email address to the group, and class was dismissed.
James emailed me before I’d even made it home. He explained his fears: he knew he was smart enough to go to college, he knew he wanted to go to college, and he knew he needed to go to college to change his life. He just had no idea how to do it. I checked his grades and they were quite good despite having attended multiple high schools. There was no doubt the kid was a smart one, even if his written words weren’t as strong as his spoken ones. Having helped a younger cousin navigate the college application process the year before, I agreed to help James get ready.
Helping James was a multi-layered endeavor: his writing needed work, but he also needed test prep. We got him a few study guides for the SAT and ACT. When his computer crashed, a friend offered to fix it for free. We got him the school supplies he needed, like a scientific calculator. He did every writing exercise I threw his way. He started doing volunteer work. We ate a lot of bacon, and he listened to every criticism and piece of advice I gave him. He told me more about himself through both conversation and his writing exercises, and my first instincts about this kid were proved true: he’d been through a lot, but he wanted so much better for himself, and had the potential to accomplish his goals, with a little help.
When his mother was accepted into transitional housing, James and his family left the shelter and moved to a one bedroom apartment in San Pedro, where he started at yet another high school. As he started senior year in a school where he knew no one, he juggled test prep and applications, but pushed through and graduated on-time, in June 2013. He also managed to get into nine great schools, including his dream school, Howard University in Washington, DC, where he plans to major in Physics.
After much contemplation, James decided to go to Howard, even though it was a bit more than he cared to spend. Though he received over $20,000 in grants and scholarships, James decided to take a gamble on himself, like I once did, and chose to finance part of his education with student loans.
Unfortunately, though his Stafford loans were approved to the maximum amounts, the remaining $14,000 needed was offered as Parent/Plus loans, which were declined due to his family’s poverty, his mother’s negative credit, and his own blank credit report. James found out in early July, but was unable to get through to the Howard financial aid office for three weeks. Another good friend, an HU alum, actually went to the University and spoke with a Financial Aid staffer, and if we can’t find an amenable lender OR raise the money, James simply won’t be able to attend Howard this fall.
We are working with Howard’s financial aid office to reclassify him as an independent, and pulling out every stop we can find, in order to get more money for him and lower that number he has to borrow. But make no mistake: James isn’t looking for a handout. He’s looking for a chance.
Personally, being able to take out loans was the great equalizer when it came to my chances of upward mobility: the loans allowed me to attend the University of Southern California, where I was able to take classes alongside students whose parents were able to just write checks for their tuition! Though the interest rates are awful, and it sometimes feels as though I’m being punished for being born into poverty, it’s undeniable: thanks to my education, being homeless is far in the distant past.
So here’s our little blog. We thank you for reading…and welcome your suggestions, shares, and donations.
GRADUATION DAY, class of 2013. Though I attended three high schools in four years, and I didn’t always have an address, I still managed to get into Howard University, and eight other colleges. Failure was not an option. I will find a way to pay for this.
When I got this letter, I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten in. My name wasn’t on it, it didn’t say “congratulations,” and the letterhead was from The Graduate School of Biology. I want to major in Physics. It also came in an email, not a big packet in the mail.
I probably found all of these flaws because getting into Howard was a dream I never thought would come true, but a few days later, the University confirmed it: I was accepted to Howard University, though not as a Biology Major! They must have mixed up the letterhead or something.
Hey everyone! I forgot to tell you that James made it to Howard safely yesterday evening, and is enjoying his first day as a Freshman Bison as I write this! Here’s a photo of our last hug at LAX. No tears allowed.
Be sure to set your DVRs for NBC’s The TODAY Show on Monday morning!
My name is Jessica Sutherland. I’m James’s mentor, and the administrator of what I’ve been calling THE JAMES FUND. I thought people might want to know where their money is going, who’s holding it, and how it’s going to be used, so here’s a bit about all of that.
My mother and I were homeless for nearly six years in the suburbs of Cleveland, OH before I was removed to foster care during my senior year of high school. After many long years of working and learning, I graduated from Cleveland State University in 2006, with a BA in Communication, a minor in Marketing, a certificate in Graphic Design, and Varsity letters in Cheerleading and Track.
I then attended the University of Southern California for graduate school, and completed my MFA in Writing for Screen and Television in 2010. My education was funded by a combination of merit and need-based aid, and student loans.
When James got into Howard, I was determined to send him off to Washington, DC with some pocket money, so that he could buy the things he’d never needed before, like winter clothing, and the things most kids never think of, like shower curtains and laundry soap. I converted my birthday party into a laid-back fundraiser for him…my loved ones came out strong, and we raised $530 in cash.
Then James’s Parent/Plus loans got denied, and suddenly money for winter clothes wasn’t our priority. Now we’re trying to raise money to reduce his funds needed, in the hope of finding a lender that will work with him.
Currently, all funds raised are being handled by me. Though we originally earmarked this cash for winter clothes, the money will now be paid directly to Howard for tuition and room and board.
Any additional funds raised beyond his Howard bills will be used in one of three ways:
to open a low-limit, secured credit card for James so that he may build credit in a responsible manner, while also building savings.
for miscellaneous expenses such as winter clothes, books, school supplies, travel for holiday, medical expenses, or food.
to help pay for additional years at Howard (this of course assumes we raise an amazing amount of money).
I welcome any and all questions you may have about what we’re doing. We are still setting things up, so we’re open to suggestions. (And donations!)
We can’t keep up with your donations! This pic is from last night and it’s a bit outdated, because as of this morning, WE ARE FULLY FUNDED! Thanks so much! Our final goal is $14,000, to meet Howard’s Official Cost of Attendance. Do you think we’ll make it?
While we may have gotten James to Howard, our work is just beginning! Demand #studentloanreform and #financialaidreform so that ALL American kids can go to college…not just the ones whose parents have good credit!
Perhaps you have to be younger than me to take good selfies. Don’t tell anyone I went to film school.
James and I spent the morning at the bank, working on an essay he wrote for a last minute scholarship application, and fielding media inquiries. Then we went to McDonald’s for lunch, and discussed our plans for homeless.to, our new non-profit we are launching to help serve the needs of bright homeless youth and to promote student loan reform!
THANKS EVERYONE. Reached $12,000, our long goal, overnight. All that’s left is our stretch goal of $14k, to meet Howard’s Official Cost of Attendance.
James is busy helping his little sister navigate her first day of high school today, so he doesn’t even know yet…but I promise you he is even more grateful than I am. Please know that your generosity has not only changed James’s life, but my own.