- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2003

Adversity has made Donald W. Washington Jr. passionate about achiev- ing success.But his path to success has been rugged. He had to overcome adversities that would have felled many other young people.

The 21-year-old has lived in various homeless shelters among alcoholics and drug addicts and had to deal with a debilitating disease, all the while attending high school and college and attempting to help his mother, who also was homeless at one point.

“The experience of living in a shelter system feels like an assault on your humanity,” says Mr. Washington, who attended Montgomery College while living in the Carroll House shelter in Silver Spring, where he stayed two years.

“When you stand in line in soup kitchens and see generations of people not doing anything with their lives for whatever reason, the basic realization that your life has the potential to become that [is scary],” he says.

“I wasn’t scared, just afraid for my future,” Mr. Washington says. “For me, it was a frightening experience because I was trying to gauge what was going to happen to my future, and I didn’t feel like I saw any future for myself.”

Although he kept his faith throughout the ordeal, his plight caused him to question his spirituality. Fortunately, salvation for Mr. Washington came in the form of a full academic scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation amounting to about $23,000 per year.

Now Mr. Washington is comfortably ensconced in Purdue Hall at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where models of success are legion. Martin Luther King, former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher; actor Samuel L. Jackson; the late Maynard H. Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta; and filmmaker Spike Lee all graduated from Morehouse.

“Nothing I’ve ever experienced educationally compares to Morehouse’s new student orientation session,” says Mr. Washington, who left for college Aug. 18. He says so far his experience has been “absolutely amazing.”

His decision to apply to Morehouse was influenced by the college’s academic ranking and reputation for developing leadership skills in its students. “Every time I’d look in Jet Magazine, Ebony or a newspaper, I’d see something about Morehouse. And if I didn’t, I saw a Morehouse graduate doing something.”

He says his research also revealed that Morehouse “had a very strong tradition of community involvement.”

Morehouse College, founded in 1867, is the largest private liberal arts college for black men in the nation, enrolling approximately 3,000 students and conferring bachelor’s degrees on more black men than any other institution in the world. It is one of just two historically black colleges or universities to have produced two Rhodes Scholars.

“If living in the Montgomery County shelter system symbolized my descent into purgatory, my matriculation to Morehouse College symbolizes my ascent into paradise,” says Mr. Washington, whose saga with homelessness began when he was a junior in high school after his parents divorced.

He and his mother, Harriet Wilkes Washington, moved out of the family home and after several financial setbacks found themselves homeless and living in separate shelters.

“Right after we left and we were trying to keep things together financially, things got really difficult. So I was just trying to keep my grades up just so I could graduate. From that point on, things went downhill,” he says.

Mother and son stayed with different families until her financial situation improved, then moved into an apartment. Through this stressful period, Mr. Washington says he found solace by immersing himself in academics and educating himself.

“I spent massive amounts of hours in the library. Books provided me with some type of outlet from all of the things that were going on,” he says.

He received stellar grades as a student at Northwest High School in Germantown but hadn’t considered attending college because family strife took priority.

“I didn’t know what my plans were,” Mr. Washington says. “Part of that was because my mother was encountering a lot of financial difficulty while I was in school. And although I didn’t have a job, I was trying my best to help her out and still keep my grades up. Even though I was getting really high grades, college didn’t really seem attainable financially.”

Just a month or so before the 2000 fall semester began at Montgomery College, he took seriously the notion of attending college.

“Because of my grades, I was able to get a scholarship…. My mother was like, ‘You might as well give it a chance.’ So that’s what I did.”

Then his mother was stricken with fibromyalgia and couldn’t work because the disease causes chronic muscle pain and fatigue. After falling behind in the rent, Mr. Washington and his mother were evicted from their apartment.

“Before we lost the apartment we were staying in, she was working, I think, three or four jobs at the same time,”says Mr. Washington, who also suffers from the disease. He says his mother began looking for a job that would accommodate her disability, but at the same time, something she could do well.

An arrangement to stay with a family from the Unitarian Universalist Church fell through, so Mr. Washington and his mother ended up in separate shelters. He stayed in two other shelters and then ended up in Carroll House, which is run by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

“He’s a good kid. I was almost like a mentor to him. I tried to support him in any way I could,” says Edward Carter, residential counselor at Carroll House.

Mr. Washington had a big adjustment to make. He was forced to cut back on his study time because of the 11 p.m. lights-out curfew. “I had to do all my studying in the library. That was rough, because I had to get all my studying done and be back at the shelter to make curfew,” he recalls.

“You’ve got to like a kid who tries that hard and is that determined, no matter who you are. I told [other counselors] in the Carroll House meetings, ‘I’m sick and tired of every time a black kid tries to better himself, he keeps getting obstacles thrown in his way. We’re going to help him.’” Mr. Carter says.

Mr. Washington briefly flirted with the idea of joining the Navy, which said he qualified for a position that could lead to a good salary and future career opportunities. He says he felt compelled to lie about his disease so the Navy would accept him, and his recruiter offered to turn a blind eye to the discrepancies in his application. In the end, though, Mr. Washington says, his integrity won out.

“Some of the residents at the shelter were like, ‘This could be in your best interest’ or ‘This might be a blessing from God.’ But I thought to myself, ‘If God’s going to give me a blessing, I shouldn’t have to sacrifice my principles like this.’”

He says he didn’t look back or consider any unscrupulous routes, like drug dealing, to get out of dire straits. “I didn’t do that because that would be contributing to the decay of the community, even if you’re doing it because you’re struggling financially.”

Mr. Washington began considering other options, such as working to save up for a house, which the shelter encouraged him to do. “I didn’t necessarily have a problem with that, but I had heard from other people that once you put your education aside and start making money in the world, it’s difficult to go back to college.”

Another option was to take classes at Montgomery College and try to get a scholarship at a four-year college. “So that’s what I emphasized to my case manager and everyone else.”

Mr. Washington’s long-term goal is to own a newspaper. He first became interested in journalism after taking a class at Montgomery College and later becoming editor in chief of the school newspaper, the Advocate.

After choosing his path, he channeled his energy into school and finding a way to pay for his transfer to a four-year college, spending rare free time relentlessly compiling inches-thick piles of scholarship information he found on the shelter’s computer.

“I would let him on the computer to search for scholarships, and he’d search all night, to the point where I’d tell him, ‘Man, you need some sleep.’ And he’d say, ‘Just let me finish this up first.’ He was very tenacious about his studies, and I love him for that,” Mr. Carter says.

Mr. Washington says, “I had to apply for something, even if it was a college in the middle of nowhere, because a full scholarship would solve my shelter situation.”

He completed the arduous six essays required for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholarship and in May learned he had won the it.

“I didn’t have to compromise myself at all on my application. I told the truth as it was, including everything about my situation. When I actually got the scholarship, that was just confirmation that I made the right decision and that God already had a way out of the shelter system for me.”

His mother’s life also took a turn for the better. She became a residential manager at Watkins Mill House in Gaithersburg and eventually saved enough money to move into her own apartment, where she and Mr. Washington now reside.

He vows he’ll be as vigorous in his pursuit of success as he’s always been.

“I’m not looking to slack off. I’ve had enough experience in the shelter system to know that I can’t slack off. God could have given this scholarship to anyone. I believe He gave it to me because I’m not going to squander it.”

His only regret now is that he hasn’t been able to share with his mother, who recently underwent eye surgery, the experience of walking on the Morehouse College campus. “She has been a tireless advocate for me and is my main role model,” he says. “I can persevere despite overwhelming circumstances because I’ve seen my mother do it every day. She’s my heart and my everything.”

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