Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-- I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference. -Robert Frost
Monday, February 11, 2013
As I begin to write this story I can only hope and pray, yes mostly pray, that I can bring a tangible quality to a situation that for me, was incredibly heart touching and emotionally shaking. As everyone involved in this company is aware we see hundreds and thousands of families and each one carries their own unique story with them. We have spent countless hours laughing, crying and helping these families walk through the next, and potentially life changing, phase of the college application process. We are thrust weekly into the hurts and triumphs of their world, even if only for a few minutes. Within those few precious moments we have with them it is our job to extract the direction of their hopes and dreams and then help them navigate the circumstances of poverty and/or doubt to implant a small seed of hope that those dreams they carry deep within them are possible despite the circumstance they are facing. This past weekend I had the honor and privilege to staff a workshop in Chicago with Trevor Dunbar. Nothing could have truly prepared me for the situation which arose when the McDonald family sat down in front of me and poured out their hearts. I was running the registration table when two young boys and a soft spoken elderly woman with pure white hair came to the table to sign in. The boys were of different ethnicity so I deeper questioned to make sure they were both qualified to take part in the personal interview after the presentation. The woman with them, Jessie was their grandmother and they said that Jamari was James' uncle. Jamari was a sophomore and James was a senior. Both of them were warm, polite and had infectious smiles. After the presentation they were my last interview of the session. They had both filled out questionnaires full of their accomplishments and dreams. James was a football and chess player as well as a wrestler, but liked chess the most out of the three. As a senior he was making mostly B's and C's with some A's. Jamari was a wrestler and football player. His dream job is to play in the NFL. He was making mostly A's and B's with one C. The interview was fun and incredibly lively with lots of laughs and conversation. Their grandmother Jessie sat mostly quiet with a half smile on her face while she watched her boys come alive talking about their hopes for the future. When she did respond to my questions they were concise and always positive. You could tell she loved and was incredible proud of both of them. Once report was established I asked more about their relationships amongst each other. Taking a noticeable deep breath Jessie explained that Jamari had been abandoned as a small child by his mother. She had been raising him as her own ever since. He even called her "mom". James was her biological grandson. Establishing that she was responsible for both boys and that they were committed 10 out of 10 to attending college I presented the family plan fees. They all looked at each other afterwards as if they were giving each other permission to open up. At that moment Jessie looked at me and said, "Well, miss Nicole, we have been through a lot recently and our circumstances are kind of tight." Shamelessly, I thought to myself, here we go again, another story full of excuses. She glanced at her boys, smiled a little and continued. "A few days after Christmas we came home to our house burnt down. There wasn't anything left but a pile of ashes." I was floored and inwardly a little embarrassed that I had jumped to a conclusion about them so quickly. It felt like my heart had hit the floor. James reached over and gave her hand a little squeeze before folding his hands in his own lap. "You see miss Nicole, we have been bouncing around to different motels until we get our feet under us again. Even the clothes we have on our backs were recently given to us." What happened next surprised me even more. They boys looked at each other and started laughing. I didn't really know how to respond so, foolishly I asked what they were laughing at. James explained that the clothes they were wearing hadn't been properly washed in a while and then pulled the shirt he was wearing out from under his puffy winter vest to reveal a purple checkered button down. Jamari started laughing harder and told him don't worry about it, he looked good in purple. Pointing the the headphones around his neck James told me the only reason he still had them was because he was always wearing them and had been wearing them the day their home burnt down. I felt conflicted. I knew they both wanted to go to college and James was a senior who was running of time and options. He admitted that the reason his grades had been slipping was because after they lost everything he had gone out and gotten a job to help out. He knew he would probably have to attend community college first, but he was more than okay with that idea. Jessie continued, "I know things seem rough, but I keep telling my boys that things are going to get better, they have to get better." She was resolute in this statement. "Hell, miss Nicole, they can't get much worse," she laughed. "We're alive and that's what is important because when you're alive things can always get better, they have to." It was taking everything with in me to keep it together. I could feel the tears burning behind my eyes, but I knew we had only begun to scratch the surface and we had to keep going. Logically, I kept trying come up with a solution. I turned the attention back to James. I asked him if it felt like sometimes it was hard to believe that life would get better when his circumstances were clouding his view of the future. I could see the tears start to well up in his eyes. "Yes, but I have to believe it will get better like ma says, it has to get better." I let the silence linger so he could compose himself. I asked why he wanted to go to college. "I want to go to college so that I can take care of my family the way she's takin' care of me even when she didn't have to." Jessie then chimed in, "You see miss Nicole, in 2007 my mom died; in 2008 my husband died, God rest his soul; and in 2009 my daughter died, which was James' mother. His father works at a university and when she died he left James with me not wanting to deal with him no more. But I am so grateful he came to me. He's been a blessing just like Jamari." My hand was over my mouth in shock, but also because I was still trying to keep it all together. Jamari had been pretty quiet up until now. "Excuse me miss Nicole, but what is the single student price for?" He pointed to the contract in front of James. I told them it was just like it sounded, for one student. "Well, then since I am just a sophomore I still have time," he turned to James. "Don't worry about me, we will figure all that out later, but you are a senior, this is more important for you." And with that Jamari's one selfless act changed the seemingly impossible distance to just within reach for them. He leaned back in his seat folded his arms across his chest looked me straight in the eyes and smiled. Hold it together was all I kept telling myself. Once again, I focused my attention on James. He was still intently staring at the contract in front of him as I explained how the single student plan would work. I also informed him that yes, Jamari could be added to the program later for the discounted price as long as James was still in the program as well. "You have greatness in you and obviously an incredible calling and purpose for your life in order for you to have been struggling this much. What I don't want to happen if for you to walk out this door today and become a victim to your circumstances by not going to college to create a better life for you and your family. You deserve better." I turned to Jamari, "You too." I felt a tear escape from my eye and wiped it away silently and quickly. James rubbed his own tears out of his eyes, which were now streaming down his face. "There is nothing I want more than to go to college, things have to get better. There is nothing I want more than to go to college..." James kept repeating himself over and over again. It was more to himself than it was too me. "When do we have to pay the $76.00 by?" He asked. I let him know that if it helped we could push the payment to Friday. He started formulating a plan, "I've been doing real good at work and I bet I could talk to them about a pay advance to cover it. I work real hard." He pulled out his wallet and handed me his debit card. "There isn't anything on it right now, but if you wait till Friday I will figure something out." It felt unusually heavy as walked to the back of the room to make an imprint of it. By the time I walked back to the table they boys were laughing and joking again while James and I filled out the paperwork. I had both him and Jessie sign it since he was the one who would be paying for it. I walked him through the next steps and then let Jamari know I wanted him to figure out how he could be added by no later than the end of his junior year of high school. "I am going to go look for a job to so we can figure out how to pay off the full three thousand right away," Jamari explained. As they were putting on their jackets to leave Jessie said, "Someone recently gave me this coat too, thank God in this weather, right!" She laughed. I gave her the world's biggest hug and she told me that I could call her "ma" too. Shaking James' hand he looked me straight in the eyes as he said, "I know we keep talking about how things are going to get better," he glanced down at the packet in his hand for the program, "but today I really do believe it. Thank you miss Nicole." Just then Trevor walked up to shake their hands as well and told Jessie that she had a beautiful coat. She looked over at me and gave me a little wink. The moment they left the ballroom I walked to the back and broke down in tears. I remembered something that I learned while living in Africa. This world is so full of hurt and need. Knowing we can only do our part, which is only so much, is the hardest part. I didn't know if they would be okay when they left, but to have that kind of positivity and resilience despite their circumstances gave me hope for their future. They had, in the short time I had the honor to get to know them, somehow reached in and touched my heart in a very unique and lasting way. As most already know Right C3 initiated what is called the 99-4-1 program. As a team we have to enroll 99 families after which we can then pick a deserving family to give the program to for free. It is based on the parable in the Bible when Jesus left the flock of 99 to go seek out, find and rescue the one sheep that had gone astray. After talking to Trevor and Marilue about the 99-4-1 program we all agreed that this was the kind of family that we had been looking for to bless it with and Region 4, which is the region I am in had a 99-4-1 on the table to use. They never made excuses for their problems and knew the value of having priorities because they had so little. My only request was that I would be the one who could call and tell them the good news. I called James' cell while in the airport to fly back to Tampa, but it just rang. Then I called Jessie's. I asked her if she was sitting down and then told her, "you know how you kept telling me that things were going to get better? Well, they are about to start getting better..." She was ecstatic and started crying when I let her know about the 99-4-1 parable and opportunity Right C3 had created grounded in that principle. She kept saying, "thank you, praise Jesus, thank you, thank you for helping my boys." I asked where the boys were. James was at work and Jamari had walked to Walmart after the workshop to try and see if he could get a job. "He was serious when he told you he was going to figure out a way to get himself in the program and pay it all off miss Nicole." I let her know that I would call James when he got out of work. On my layover in Atlanta I had a voice message from James. He was incredibly excited and thanked me and the company over and over saying he wouldn't let us down. I returned the call and when I told him that we were also going to include Jamari he started crying. He swore he wouldn't let us down and didn't know how to thank us, "I feel like telling you thank you isn't enough and I wish there was more I could say to let you know how grateful I am for this opportunity. I believe it today miss Nicole, I really do. Things are going to get better. They already are. I won't let you down. I am going to make everyone so proud." Moments like this, experiences like these and people like that make the time we invest in this company priceless. I will never forget this family. They touched my heart in such a way that they have left their hand prints on my life. What a blessing that Right C3 has created an opportunity for them to succeed in spite of their circumstances. No one deserves it more.