- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

Alecia Winters seemed destined to be another victim of the District’s downtrodden neighborhoods.

Her drug-addicted mother had long ago abandoned her. Her father’s drinking was leading him toward an early grave. With her older siblings building their own lives or in jail, Alecia was often home alone with no one to push her to attain a better future.

School was for hanging out with friends, not learning, and Alecia skipped more classes than she attended her first two years at H.D. Woodson High School.

“If I didn’t know the work, I didn’t do it,” she recalled.

But instead of becoming another statistic, Alecia got a jarring glimpse of her mother on the street and tried to turn her life around.

This month, Alecia will graduate on the honor roll. And with a big boost from the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund, she will attend Allegany College in Cumberland, Md., this fall.

“I figured, with my grades from ninth grade, that I wouldn’t be able to go to college, but Hoop Dreams taught me that some colleges would still accept me,” said Alecia, one of 83 Hoop Dreams scholars in the class of 2009 who recently were honored at the Capitol.

Alecia is one of 1,000 children from Wards 7 and 8, most of whom are the first in their families to go to college, to whom Hoop Dreams has provided scholarships since its creation in 1996 by Susie Kay, then a government teacher at Woodson.

The event started as a one-day charity basketball tournament.

“Susie had a dream and a vision that these children needed help, and she sacrificed her personal life to make sure that help has been available,”said Dennis Stolkey, a fund board member and senior vice president of information technology company EDS. “There aren’t a lot of people that have dedicated themselves unselfishly to such a cause.”

Hoop Dreams remains a resource for its graduates well into adulthood, serving as a transition for many students from school into careers.

Jermaine Gaye was a basketball star and solid student at Woodson when his mother abandoned him and his younger brother during his junior year. He slept in stolen cars and Metro stations, using school as a comfort zone and getting help from Kay.

Once Jermaine became a Hoop Dreams scholar, his mentor, a real estate agent, provided the brothers with an apartment. He spurned a scholarship to Duquesne to stay with his brother, took trade classes and is now an HVAC mechanic at Sibley Memorial Hospital who has his own apartment.

“Educational opportunities for residents of our capital should be a priority for all members of Congress,” said Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Rhode Island Democrat. “I so admire Susie’s commitment to these students. She’s opening up the doors of opportunity for these students.”

Students such as Woodson senior Tamesha Veasey, who was accepted by more than 10 colleges and plans to major in social work at George Mason.

“I live in a neighborhood where poverty, drugs and alcohol abuse, violence and a general lack of ambition make it hard, but [Hoop Dreams] has given me hope,” Tamesha said. “I have never stopped believing in myself - that I can do better.”

Kay expected to use her political science degree from American University to work on those issues in government or as a lobbyist for a nonprofit. But a mentoring relationship with an Anacostia teenager, a post-graduation job with the Close Up Foundation - which brought high school students from around the country to the District for seminars - and the establishment of the Teach For America program changed her plans in 1990.

“My father really instilled in me that you can’t just know what’s going on; you have to feel a sense of responsibility that you’re part of the solution,” Kay said. “People gravitate to this city from all around the world to deal with issues like equity in education and empowerment, but they usually focus on them for other communities. I wanted to help bridge the worlds of Capitol Hill and the young people who grow up literally in the shadow of the Capitol.”

Kay, who barely tops 5 feet, said she was never scared when she drove from her Capitol Hill apartment across the Anacostia River to the metal detectors at Woodson’s entrance.

“What kept me going back every day… was my belief in my students,” she said. “To be a part of their lives is really the most fulfilling experience anybody can ask for. I really immersed myself in their lives, going to their games, having them over to my house.”

Lester Davis was one of those students. As a football-loving borderline student and the only child of a single mother who ran the neighborhood convenience store, he wasn’t planning on going to college.

“It’s early September, it’s hot, she’s talking about Bill Clinton and we’re looking at each other like this lady is crazy. But at the end of the day, you knew she was there because she cared. We taught her about hip-hop. She introduced us to lox and bagels,” recalled Davis, who is now the communication director for Hoop Dreams.

Then Kay’s father died. While working with many students who didn’t know their fathers, she was reminded how lucky she was to have known him. Honoring his legacy, Kay started Hoop Dreams.

Future White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, then-Rhode Island Rep. Jack Reed and Byron Leftwich - then a Woodson student - were among the players in that first tournament, which Kay named after the award-winning documentary. The event raised $3,000. Thirteen years later, and six years after Kay left Woodson to run the organization full time, Hoop Dreams has raised more than $3 million.

“I have been involved in a number of nonprofits, but Hoop Dreams gives me the most pleasure and the most sense of accomplishment because you can see the excitement in the kids who never thought they would have an opportunity to go to college,” said board member Ernie Jarvis, managing director of the commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis. “It’s one of the few organizations that really reflects the diversity of the community rolling up their sleeves and helping. That kind of collaboration between African-Americans and whites in this city is very rare.”

That collaboration was evident that evening at the Capitol. Keynote speaker Brandon Warren, a Ballou High School senior who will attend Florida A&M;, unabashedly told the audience, “Through all the hard times when I felt like giving up, the Hoop Dreams staff was right there, urging me to keep going, fighting to succeed.”

Davis, whose poor grades prevented him from playing football as a senior, was energized after being chosen as a Hoop Dreams scholar. Theo Brannum, now the organization’s program director, was fortunate to have a father who was a police officer and a mother who was a teacher; but despite his stellar grades, he was just going through the motions until he became a scholar.

“We wanted to talk about Biggie and 2Pac, but Ms. Kay opened our world,” said Brannum, who earned an economics degree from Rutgers.

The program, which costs $1.5 million a year and relies almost exclusively on donations from such corporate sponsors as EDS, Pepco and Coca-Cola, empowers its students via SAT preparation, one-on-one mentoring with local professionals, career preparation through networking and internships, academic scholarships and alumni support.

“Who is more worthy of that investment and support than these young people who have been so resilient?” said Kay, who introduced a scholar from each of Hoop Dreams’ 14 classes during the Capitol reception. “Remaining a support system to a kid who might’ve ended up in jail, whose mentor happened to be a lawyer and was able to help him get him support and into a community college is just as much of a success story as a kid that graduates in four years.”

Those success stories are much harder to sustain in the current economic climate. Contributions are down dramatically, but Kay is undeterred.

“The program is damn good, and Susie is such a great advocate for it,” said board member Jerry Sachs, an original volunteer and former vice president of the Washington Bullets. “When she gets in front of somebody, it’s tough not to want to participate in some fashion.

“What a competitor. If Susie was a basketball player, she’d be Muggsy Bogues or Calvin Murphy. Despite her size, she’d win.”

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