When Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke died in 1997, D.C. native Yasmine Arrington was preschool age, and neither Cooke nor Miss Arrington could have suspected that his legacy and her destiny would intersect.
Like Michelle McLeod of Virginia, she became an academic achiever and church-going girl amid an unsettled family life.
Despite living lives that weren’t exactly covered in four-leaf clovers, both became beneficiaries of “Uncle Jack,” the billionaire who leveraged his fortune by leaving it to establish the Virginia-based Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for high achievers — students who are not only academically worthy and in need of financial help, but also promising self-driven entrepreneurs, artists and career-focused individuals.
“I didn’t know what my future was going to look like,” said Ms. McLeod, who knew her personal and church-going families weren’t keen that she is a lesbian.
Shuttling between foster care and homelessness before a stint in the Navy, she “always wanted to attend college. I just didn’t have the means.”
A string of dead-end minimum-wage jobs was a reckoning, of sorts, until she went to community college and began searching for financial aid to a four-year university.
With the help of the foundation, Ms. McLeod first moved to the District and attended Georgetown University before transferring to George Washington University and graduating this year after majoring in political management and advocacy policy.
Ever the activist, she pours her knowledge and life experiences into advocating social justice for veterans and the LGBT community, as well as youths who are in foster care or homeless. She now serves as a court-appointed special advocate in Montgomery County.
She also was the first member of the LGBT community to carry the rainbow flag in Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery this year and at the Tomb of the Unknowns, where President Obama spoke.
Pride might sound too cliched, but for prayer, determination, the Cooke foundation and the grace of God, who knows what paths the teenage Michelle might have taken when she left home with only “a suitcase and high school diploma.”
Miss Arrington’s young life wasn’t as troubled as Ms. McLeod’s, but having a father who was incarcerated weighed heavily.
Having received a scholarship from the foundation, she currently is a junior at Elon University, not far from North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham area.
The 20-year-old Miss Arrington has received numerous leadership and academic awards, including the Redskins’ College Success Leadership award, BET’s 2012 Black Girls Rock Making a Difference award and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s $10,000 2013 Matthew J. Quinn Prize.
One of the remarkable ways this scholar gives back is via scholarCHIPS (schloarCHIPSfund.com), a program that gives scholarships to high school seniors that — get this — she started while attending Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Northwest D.C.
“Our scholarships go to students with incarcerated parents or caregivers,” said Miss Arrington, a double major in communications and history. “I’ve been there. I know my demographic, and it is children and teens with incarcerated parents, to help them financially and with all the emotional baggage that comes with that.”
She said some scholarCHIPS recipients are attending schools as nearby as Old Dominion and Bucknell universities, and as far away as Winston-Salem State and Chowan universities.
“I was active in church and the community,” she said. “I studied, I volunteered, I paid my tithes, I prayed. I am blessed with the foundation. I get to learn and travel the world. [At the foundation] they encourage you to step outside your comfort zone. That’s my hope for other youths.”
The foundation receives more than 2,000 applications each year from across the nation, with Ms. McLeod and Miss Arrington but two of the shining and the blessed high-achieving thousands.
You can question whether Cooke has been smiling down on the hapless Redskins these days, but one thing is obvious: His legacy continues to guarantee future winners.
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at email@example.com.