In June, we received a call that two of our students, we nominated, from Forest Park High School – Amber and Auriana – were invited to attend the third annual Beating the Odds Summit in Washington, D.C., hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama. As part of the First Lady’s Reach Higher initiative, the summit of 130 college-bound students from across the country is dedicated to education and strengthening underserved communities. Students invited to the summit represented urban and rural areas, fosters homes, homeless shelters, special needs kids and other underrepresented youth; all of them have overcome significant barriers to make it to college.
Being a former Capitol Hill staffer and having had the privilege and pleasure of going to the White House on numerous occasions, I knew how special this moment would be for these two young ladies who probably would never get the opportunity if not for Communities In Schools (CIS) of Atlanta.
Let me give you a little back ground on our two students.
Auriana and Amber are the first in their family to pursue education beyond high school. This was no easy feat. Their chances of graduating from high school and pursuing post-secondary education was nearly impossible without the support from CIS of Atlanta.
Auriana graduated with a 3.8 GPA despite growing up as a homeless student, spending her high school years in an extended stay hotel, and transferring from school-to-school. She graduated in the top 10 percent of her high school class. She’s now a freshman at Howard University studying business.
Amber is the epitome of dedication and perseverance. Due to the lack of focus and hanging around the wrong crowd, Amber had 14 credits – barely enough to be considered a junior. Through a rigorous work regime, Amber made up all lost credits and attained Honor Roll status in the 12th grade. Amber now attends Atlanta Metropolitan State College to study nursing. She hopes to transfer to a school in D.C. because of her experience.
It was a beautiful day when I arrived at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport in July. I arrived early so I could wait on the students. When I saw the young ladies, I asked them, “We’re going away for three days; where’s your luggage? Did you check it in?” They both looked at me and said, “No, all we have is our book bags.”
When I got to my hotel room, tears started flowing down my face. I felt embarrassed that I even asked them that question in the first place because we’re poverty-fighters. As a parent, I could never imagine being in a situation where I would send my children somewhere with people I didn’t know personally for three days with a book bag of clothes to go meet the First Lady of the United States.
We would never let our children go to the White House unprepared, so one of our chaperones went shopping and bought several hundred dollars’ worth of new clothing and shoes for the students the night before we went to the White House. These girls weren’t prepared for a trip, they needed feminine items and we even had to buy bras because one of the young ladies didn’t have one that fit. These are basic needs, but they really summarize the challenges that our children have and face that prevent them from going to school, graduating and achieving in life.
The students were in shock that they were at the White House. It’s an amazing feeling when you walk up to that building. You’ve studied about it, you’ve read about it, but there’s nothing like walking through those doors and hearing someone say, “Welcome to the White House.”
At this year’s summit, the First Lady was joined by YouTube personality Tyler Oakley, who moderated the discussion, as well as a panel with U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, a current student, and musical artist Jidenna. (Click here to read the full discussion by the panelists at the summit.)
We were at the White House from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event focused on sharing tools and strategies to help students successfully transition to college and complete the next level of their education. The panelists also provided down-to-earth advice to the 130 students about college, careers and life.
What I really loved about the First Lady’s approach was she was like a mom. She talked about how there’s no secret sauce. You have to get up every day, do the hard work, and understand that you have the same abilities as everybody else. Never forget where you come from because it will always be a part of you, but you don’t have to remain mentally attached to your roots either because growth demands your mind to be open to new ideas and different ways of thinking. Having that message come from someone who looks like their mother, it really resonated. (Click here for a short video of her remarks.)
We will never really be able to understand the optical impressions that were made on our young African-American students’ minds to see a woman who looks just like them who can say, “I’m no different than you are. I came from one of the poorest sides of town in Chicago, but I went to an Ivy League school. My parents never went to college and they barely graduated high school. My parents didn’t have anything close to what I have right now in my life, but they sacrificed, showed me and pushed me to succeed academically and taught me to never settle for less.” Those are just powerful images. Anytime you can see someone who looks like you and has a similar story reach the highest pinnacles of success, it enables you believe that anything is possible.
I made sure that our young ladies didn’t just see the glitz and glamour, but I wanted them to talk to the butlers because anybody who understands history understands that African-American slaves built that White House. Butlers have been some of the most silent first-hand observers of history.
We took a picture with a butler who actually had been at the White House since President Richard Nixon’s term. He has seen everything from Nixon, to Clinton’s impeachment, to 9/11. He said something to me that really resonated with what I believe our mission here at CIS is. He said, “We’re servants for the President of the United States. We’re serving our country.” He didn’t look at his position as a job. He actually looked at it as taking care of the president as a responsibility for the good of the country.
This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Amber and Auriana that will motivate them to understand that despite where they came from, there’s no limit to where they can go. They made it to the White House because they overcame obstacles. They already have the resiliency needed to accomplish what they want to do in life.
I believe this organization has a responsibility to expose children, not just to the White House, but to colleges, career opportunities, entrepreneurship and the military. We have a responsibility to expose some of the poorest children in the country to possibilities. If we give them opportunities, exposure, and support, we can watch them blossom.
I am the product of a single parent home. I didn’t grow up with a lot and I have a brother doing 15 years for voluntary manslaughter, therefore, I can identify with our students’ struggles. I can identify with having a household where no one finished college prior to me. I can identify with their worries about how to make things happen when you don’t have the family and financial support to make a seamless transition. But I can tell you, that it’s possible.
Just like that butler I met at the White House, my team takes the same approach – this is not a job. No matter where you are, you can serve; you can lead. Our mission is to stabilize homes, fight poverty, and serve children and families; we have to do whatever it takes. Our job is to be love agents – to love on these children and families when there is no one else to love on them – and to provide supports when it looks like all other doors have closed.
Amber, Auriana and the more than 4,000 students we support in Metro Atlanta are the reason why I get up every morning. They’re the reason why we fight through obstacles, like hearing “no” when we ask for funding, partnerships, or assistance. It makes it all worthwhile when you get a unique opportunity to expose a child to something that will be life-altering. Some of the children and families we support have the least, but they have a lot of love and resiliency.
This D.C. trip just doubled my energy and helped me understand why what we do is so important, why it’s necessary. It’s not me. It’s the countless, almost faceless people, who go to those schools everyday with our shirts on whose number one goal is to make life better for that child and family. They’re the true unsung heroes. I’m just a figure head who has been blessed with an opportunity to lead an organization that’s second to none.
The CEO of Under Armour, Kevin Plank, says that you must always be humble and stay hungry– that’s what I tell my staff. That’s what we’re going to do as long as I’m leading this organization - work every day to help every family and child where they are to get back on track. So that our children are empowered to stay in school and achieve in life.
Check out Auriana's look back at the trip below.