In the eighth grade, I attended school for half the number of days I should have. Not surprisingly, I received a report card that had just two grades — and neither was higher than a D. I also received a police escort to the juvenile detention center. Missing 100 days of school should have pointed toward the end of the story, but instead it was only the beginning.
When your parents are drug addicts, school is optional. My parents didn’t make me attend, so I chose not to. My parents accepted any excuse for why I didn’t want to go to school on any given day. It didn’t matter if I said I was sick or just wanted to stay home. They spent their days trying to find drugs and didn’t care how I spent my time, as long as I stayed out of their way.
My parents’ addiction helped my father amass seven felonies and my mother five. Our home was burglarized by drug dealers and raided by the police. Both my parents have been in rehab more times than I can count.
Whether I went to school or not, by 3 p.m., I’d be with my best friend, Brandon. We were inseparable — more like brothers than friends — which explains why I asked my mom if I could live with Brandon the summer after my arrest. His family was moving to a nearby suburb and it felt like a chance for me to have a better life.
Brandon’s family had no reason to help me, but they did. They saw an opportunity to give me a shot at something better and did just that. Brandon’s parents were regular people: His dad was an electrician and coached his baseball team, while his mom stayed at home to raise two kids. His family ate dinner together and spent time with their extended family, both things I had never experienced before.
I had more than enough reasons to give up, blame the hand I was dealt and become little more than a sad statistic.
I was 13 years old, and my parents were in jail. But living in a new neighborhood and attending a new school, surrounded by people who decided to help me when I was in need, I was able to move forward.
During my first year as a member of Brandon’s household, I joined the high school basketball team. Our team was terrible, but the coach, Mr. Warnick, was an amazing person. Friendly and ready to help, stern yet loving, he made me feel safe to open up about my life and the struggles I was facing without my parents.
My high school counselor, Mr. Eby, was another source of support. He exemplified what it means to serve people in need, always there with a smile and words of encouragement. I practically lived in his office during my first year. Had people like Mr. Eby not been in my corner, I doubt I would have made it to college.
In my application to Malone University, I wrote that regardless of what I chose to study, I wanted to serve others. I imagine that reinforcing this conviction during my interview led to my being accepted, as I did not meet the academic requirements for admission.
I believed that Malone would foster my desire to serve others, and I was correct. Ken Stoltzfus was my first professor, and he eventually became my academic adviser and one of my closest friends. Ken is a social work professor, an ultramarathoner and a churchgoer. Just like Mr. Eby and Mr. Warnick, Ken was dedicated to serving others, and while none of these people knew it, they became role models for the person I aspired to be.
By the end of my first year at Malone, my GPA had dropped to 1.8 and I was placed on academic suspension. I enrolled at another university, but the Malone staff and faculty were still there for me. I made friends with the women in the mail room, stopping in most days to chat about school, life or whatever was on my mind, and I visited the business office to talk with the staff about their jobs or how their kids were doing.
I have been fortunate to have people in my life who extended themselves when I was in need. Brandon’s family, my high school teachers, the Malone faculty — they gave generously of their time and energy; they are the reason I was able to move forward. The kids I grew up with who lacked this kind of support didn’t fare so well; most dropped out of school or spent time in jail as teenagers. Because of the individuals who were there for me, I determined that I would be of service to others.
On Aug. 2, 2015, I was one of 76 Peace Corps volunteers boarding a plane for Botswana. Being of service has become an integral part of my worldview, after learning what it meant by watching others extend a hand repeatedly and for no apparent reason other than their willingness to help.
After missing 100 days of school, after a report card filled with F’s and D’s, drug-addicted parents and failing out of college my freshman year, I had more than enough reasons to give up, blame the hand I was dealt and become little more than a sad statistic. The fact that my story turned out differently, however, is not because I possess determination and resilience that others do not. I managed to rewrite my story and do the things I’ve done because others selflessly reached out when I was in need. Missing 100 days of school was a turning point in my life — and now it’s my turn to help others so they too have a chance to tell a different story.