Listening to the 18-minute musical monologue has been a Thanksgiving tradition among folk music fans for decades.
Formerly homeless teenager James Ward raised money online to pay for his tuition and expenses at Howard University.
While homeless, Ward and his mentor Jessica Sutherland launched the online campaign Homeless to Howard. Sutherland, a formerly homeless teen herself, graduated from college and met Ward when she spoke at the mission where he lived.
Their site went viral and raised over $2,000 in its first 8 hours alone. The duo crowdsourced the funds required to go to the university in Washington, D.C., and allowed Ward to be the first in his family to go to college.
Ward and Sutherland share their success story with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.
Ward on an important lesson he learned his first year at college
“Finding other people like you is very important to succeed in college because having like minded individuals around you, help will push you to succeed. They’re going to keep you up when you’re feeling down, push you to do things you need to get done. And vice versa.”
Ward on becoming homeless and arriving at the shelter
“We moved into the homeless shelter around mid-February of 2012. When I got there I don’t think I was mentally prepared for it. I really realized “Hey, I’m homeless now.” There was kind of nowhere else to go. When I got there I met other children who were pretty much in the same place and it made me realize that it’s not a singular event.”
Sutherland on her life as a homeless youth and what drew her to help Ward
“I bounced around with and without my mother. When you go through that and you know each and every person that helped you and made sure you had a place to stay when you couldn’t find one, fed you, and bought you school supplies you needed– you can’t help but want to give back. The biggest thing for me was when, as James was saying, you try and keep it a secret. As soon as I started telling the truth and people started finding out what my life really was like, all the shame that I felt, I discovered it was completely unnecessary.”
Ward on advice for youth who are homeless
“The first thing I would tell them is: it’s okay. There are other people out there like you. And I know it seems difficult and hard, and that you believe there is no one out there who understands your situation, but there are people out there just like you in the exact same place that you are. You have to stay strong and ambitious and determined because there are a thousand reasons why you shouldn’t succeed in life, but all you need is one to get you to where you need to be. They just need to believe in themselves and get there. The next thing I would tell them is to ask for help and to reach out to someone they feel comfortable with whether its a friend or an adult, a counselor, or a teacher. There is so much that someone can do if you actually tell them and ask for help.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
And from a positive home sales report now to a story about life without a home. And specifically what it's like for homeless teenagers to apply and attend college. Nineteen-year-old James Ward has just finished his freshman year at Howard University in Washington D.C. That's the school he got into but could not pay for. So with help from Jessica Sutherland, he crowd funded his freshman year bill. Jessica was also homeless at one time but ended up graduating from college and co-founding the group Homeless to Higher Education. Both Jessica and James join us now. And first James, how has the first year at Howard been for you?
JAMES WARD: My first year at Howard has been amazing. I've seen so many things. I've done so many things. Most of all I've learned so much in just one year. It was difficult for me to put into words because it's just so much, gosh.
HOBSON: Like, what have you learned?
WARD: One thing I've learned is that finding other people like you is really important for you to succeed in college because having like-minded individuals around you help push you to succeed. They're going to keep you up when you're feeling down. Push you to get things that you need to get done. And vice versa.
HOBSON: Well, James tell us a little bit about your life before you went to Howard. What was it like to live in a homeless shelter with your family?
WARD: Well, we moved into the homeless shelter around mid-February of 2012. And when I got there I don't think I was mentally prepared for it. I realized that, hey, I'm homeless now. There's kind of nowhere else for me to go. And then when I got there I met other children who were pretty much at the same place. And it made me realize that it's not a singular event and that it happens to everyone - well, maybe not everyone. But there are still a lot of people out there who are like me. And that there are kids there who probably went through the same thing I've been through.
HOBSON: And you attended three different high schools in four years? What made you decide through all of that that you wanted to go to college?
WARD: Well, even from when I was young my mother has always told me that I'm going to college. And so me changing schools didn't make a difference but I've always known that college was the only way out of my situation. And college would be the only way to change my life and my family's life for the future.
HOBSON: But you weren't able to get quite enough money in loans and grants to make Howard University happen. So what happened?
WARD: Well, after I found out I was denied for my loan I was telling Jess about it and Jessica decided, hey let's try fundraising. I was, like, OK. And she explained to me that she was going to take my picture and see what happens. And I said OK.
HOBSON: Well, and Jessica it was more than that. You started a whole online campaign.
JESSICA SUTHERLAND: Yeah. I created a hashtag, got his permission, wrote up his story, wrote up my story. People started asking for, you know, different proofs. So we threw his acceptance letter out there. You know, we responded and to what was asked of us and amazingly, I mean, we went viral almost immediately. We raised $2000 in the first 8 hours.
HOBSON: Well, and reminds of your story - you personal story because you were also homeless for a time.
SUTHERLAND: I was. For a short period of my early elementary school years and then later off and on shortly after sixth grade until late into my senior year I bounced around with and without my mother. And when you go through that you just - and you know each and every person that helped you and made sure you had a place to stay when you couldn't find one. And, you know, fed you, bought you school supplies you needed, you can't help but want to give back. Because the biggest thing for me was when, you know, as James was saying it's something you try to keep a secret. As soon as I started telling the truth and people started finding out what my life really was like all that shame I felt I discovered it was completely unnecessary. And that I probably could have helped myself out of my situation a little earlier if I would have just spoken up and admitted what was going on and asked for help. So yeah, you can't help but want to give back if you can escape things.
HOBSON: James, would your advice be to somebody who's in a situation similar to yours now? Who is homeless and wants to go to college?
WARD: My first advice would be - the first thing I would tell them is it's OK. There are other people out there like you out there and I know it seems difficult and hard and that you believe there is no one out there who understands your situation. But there's people out there just like you in the exact same place that you are. And that you have to stay strong and ambitious and determined because there's a thousand reasons why you shouldn't succeed in life but all you need is one to get to where you need to be. And so they just have to believe in themselves and get there. The next thing I would tell them is to ask for help. And to reach out to someone they feel comfortable with. Whether it's a friend or an adult, a counselor or a teacher. There's so much that someone can do if you actually tell them and ask for help.
HOBSON: That's James Ward he just finished his freshman year at Howard University. Jessica Sutherland helped crowd fund that first year. She's co-founder of the nonprofit Homeless to Higher Education. We have more information at hereandnow.org. James' family by the way is on track to move into their own home this summer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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