by Professor Bill Leamon

Note from Tim: Our Foundation’s Managing Director, Bill Leamon, wrote an update for our board recently about a young man he is mentoring named Chris, and I asked him to share his story for our June update. Peace. 

As a young boy living in inner-city Cleveland, Chris loved learning. He says there was always a hunger inside of him to know to more, to be more. But by the time he entered intermediate school in the public school system, his thirst for knowledge was stifled. “The teachers were not passionate about teaching and the students were not serious about learning,” Chris said. “Secondly, to be considered intelligent was frowned upon by my peers and considered a source of weakness in an environment where you always had to prove yourself in order not to be preyed upon.” Chris was eventually expelled in his 8th grade year for carrying a can of mace, even though it was to protect him from a neighborhood dog which had attacked him.

Then after having a conversation with an older cousin who believed in him and reassured him of his potential, Chris started to think differently about education and the life that he could have because of it. His cousin gave him a book by W.E. B. Dubois, the first African American to receive a Doctorate from Harvard University. This awakening to potential opportunities and the support of someone believing in him led Chris to decide to make a change in his life, and he enrolled in Saint Martin de Porres High School.

“Saint Martin was different from any school that I attended prior because it was full of teachers that not only cared about the students’ academic performance but they also cared about making a connection with each individual student,” he said. “This high school was also a blessing because it exposed the students by taking us on retreats, field trips and college tours. Excellence was rewarded and became more of a demand than just an option. It was because of this mandate given to the students that I started to think of a world outside of the drug, alcohol and violence infested community that I had become accustomed to.”

Chris proudly walked the stage with the first graduating class of Saint Martin de Porres. His future looked even brighter after becoming accepted to Morehouse College in Atlanta, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Chris felt Morehouse was the college that would set him on the path of scholarship, leadership, and activism that he had dreamed for himself. “I had admired certain individuals up close and from a distance, who were leaders and pioneers in the Cleveland community. I found out that they all had one thing in common, that was that they all had been Morehouse graduates.”

But after 3 years at Morehouse, Chris ran out of money. As is the case with many low-income, first-generation college students, a minor financial setback becomes an insurmountable obstacle. An overdue tuition bill of $1,300 brought his ambitions to a jarring halt. Because he owed the school money he could neither register for classes at Morehouse nor transfer elsewhere. He was stuck.

Chris returned to Cleveland to live with his drug addicted mother and his younger brothers and sisters. He got a job, and then another, but nothing really steady and could never put together the money he owed Morehouse while he also supporting his family. He slept on the couch for the next 2 years until he got in a fight with his mom’s drug dealer and was kicked out. He moved into a house with his mentally ill aunt that had no heat or running water, until he couldn’t take it any longer.

Referred to me by a mutual friend, Chris called me at the edge of despair. I offered for him to stay at my house, and after the Foundation paid off his balance at Morehouse, he enrolled at Notre Dame College where I am a professor of entrepreneurship.

During the semester he worked third shift at the Christian Children’s Home six nights a week, went to classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and, to help him create some runway, the Foundation secured him a paid internship on his “off-days” at Junior Achievement, where by all accounts he did a great job. He stayed with my family until after his finals were over and is now living in stable, albeit temporary, housing in Lakewood near both his work and a bus line.

While Chris has a way to go before he reaches his goal of graduating from college, he is back on track and well positioned to succeed in life. In addition to earning six more college credits and strengthening his resume, his dreams are restored and confidence is back. He is evaluating whether to return to Morehouse, which is still his dream, continue at Notre Dame College, or finish his degree at Cleveland State University. Chris now works double shifts at CCH whenever he can to save up money for a final push to graduation, but is never too tired to attend his church on Sundays.

The day after Chris moved out, I arrived early for a Foundation meeting held at Workplace Impact, the business owned by our founder Tim McCarthy, and sat down in the break room, looked up at the marker board and read the following inspirational quote by Harriet Tubman: “If you are tired, keep going; if you are scared, keep going; if you are hungry, keep going.”

Like Harriet Tubman, Chris knows that his hard work and persistence will someday pay off. His motivation to keep going rests on his belief that someday he will be positioned to live a life in the service of others, either as a teacher, minister, or lawyer. Chris’ life experience certainly gives a modern meaning to Harriet Tubman’s words from 150 years ago, and much to consider as we all continue to strive to keep going to reach our own goals.

Take care and hope to talk soon.


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