MY TURN - Sitting in the dark, Danielle "Ella" Johnson stared at the dirty cot her 3-month old nephew was in.
A cold loneliness paralyzed her heart. Nothing seemed right, just bitter.
For the first time in her life, she, her two sisters and her mom were now shut in a Skid Row Shelter in Los Angeles after being evicted from their Watts apartment when her mom could no longer pay the bills. They shared one blanket among all of them that cold night. It was dark and ugly and the way Ella started her first day in 7th grade at Culver City Middle School.
"It was so uncomfortable, I can't even describe it," said the 17-year-old who wanders back to that horrible first night. "It was sad. It's something that will never escape my mind. In the cafeteria, people were standing in long lines to eat.
"I felt like a helpless newborn, vulnerable and exposed," she would later write in an essay.
But after suffering a long, and turbulent road of financial burdens and homelessness in her family, a light began to shine on this troubled youth. With help from the Boys and Girls Club and other programs, she transformed from an angry girl with "an anti-social attitude" to become a remarkable leader at San Pedro High School and at the Los Angeles Harbor area club. She changed so dramatically that this year she was awarded a full tuition scholarship to private Bucknell University through the Posse Foundation worth nearly $47,000 a year.
In addition, Ella will also be among the 320 seniors graduating Wednesday evening from the popular and successful Boys and Girls Club College Bound program that launched eleven years ago. Many of those youths would not have gone onto higher education without it. And there have been hundreds that had gone before them.
For many, including Ella, no crystal ball was showing a way out of their often impoverished circumstances.
Instead of focusing on her future for the next two years, Ella just worried about the other kids teasing her for wearing hand-me-downs at Culver City Middle School.
When her mom at last found housing in San Pedro just before Ella was to enter high school, Ella rebelled. She wanted to stay with her friends and continue schooling in Culver City where she could visit her 4th grade teacher who allowed her to visit every day after school.
This meant each day, her mom had to drive her in a "crappy car that I had to push just to get it to start," Ella said. Once the car broke down, her mom insisted she go to San Pedro High -- and join the Boys and Girls Club where she sat angrily day-after-day, wearing headphones and refusing to talk with anyone.
"I hated it," she said. "I'd come in and stay in my own little bubble. I was in a new environment and I was reluctant to be involved in anything."
"Ella use to come in, put her headphones on and she didn't talk to anybody," said Maria Flores, the club's College Bound coordinator. "But she saw how the seniors were going on "to school to better their lives and "we had a better understanding of her...she is her mom's right hand."
By all accounts, officials involved with Ella are more than surprised by her keenly intuitive and astute leadership abilities that recently led her to save a girl from continuing to mutilate herself when Ella spotted blood streaming from bathroom at San Pedro High.
"Ella truly is the whole package," said Yesenia Aguilar, who oversees the College Bound program at all of the Los Angeles Harbor area Boys and Girls club sites. "She's a leader involved with our club and community in all areas, academics. Athletics. Service. You name it. She did it with grace, manners and a passion that I have not seen for awhile."
San Pedro High College Counselor Valerie Armstrong said she's thrilled that Ella received the award adding she's the first at San Pedro High to get the scholarship. In fact, one of Ella's close Boys and Girls club friends, Edwin Torres, was nominated for the same scholarship last year, Armstrong said, making it to the last round. He was not picked, but he received a full scholarship from St. John's University in Minnesota.
Besides the Boy’s and Girl's staff, Ella attributes her dramatic change to two seniors she met at the club -- Torres, and Tabitha Sanchez, who is now attending California State University, Northridge.
They both encouraged her that she could overcome her issues and had the whole world head of her. Reached by phone, Torres said he wanted "to break the cycle" that San Pedro High students would be nominated for Posse, but not get selected. He spent time coaching Ella, sharing all that he learned, what interviews were like, what types of questions were asked, how she should fashion her story, how she should dress. He believed in her, he said.
"I tried to push her to break free of the picture of her family" troubles and "I have endless Facebook messages back to back trying to coach" and answer her questions to help her receive the scholarship, he said.
"She was so happy and so thankful for that," Torres explained, but "I always knew she was meant for greatness."
"I believe Ella got the scholarship because she has amazing leadership qualities," the high school college counselor said. "She is a peer tutor, helping underclassmen with English and math homework. She is also a staff intern at the Boys and Girls Club assisting with activities and their tutoring program. She was recognized by the Los Angeles City Council for her work in the Let Up organization, where she mentors younger girls about making wise choices in school and in their personal lives.
"Ella is a well rounded young lady who thrives on being involved on her campus and has a wonderful rapport with both students and adults."
All of those golden opportunities, Ella explains, stem from those who surrounded, persuaded and supported her. After tutoring younger students, Ella said she found her vocation; She wants to be a teacher.
As far as resolving her anger, friend Tabitha Sanchez helped sooth those issues telling her to look forward and not back. Tabitha herself dealt with anger issues coming from "a dysfunctional family."
"Ella and I expressed ourselves through stepping (a dance form) which allowed us to release some of our anger that had been bottled up and other times we had girl talk," Tabitha texted. "The beginning (for her) was to have humbled hopes for her future, a need to experience something more than disorder and a heart that wouldn't allow her to give up."
But her departure will not be easy. Ella worries about leaving her mom, Talitha Johnson behind, especially since her mother had to take in her son's four children ages 1, 3, 4 and 7 and give up her bed.
"It's hard because there is no one else to help her," Ella said. "But she wants me to have a balanced life."
Talitha Johnson says she's proud of her daughter's accomplishments and that Ella is her first child out of six to leave and go out of state for her education. All of her older kids (Ella is number five in the lineup) have gone on and received college degrees locally, said the single mother, but were too young to help when the remaining family became homeless.
In her lifetime, Talitha said she never thought her family would be exposed to homelessness. It was a humiliating experience and when they were forced to live in a motel, they couldn't eat in the room because it was filled with rats and roaches. Now, they can move on.
"I am ecstatic and I am very proud," Talitha said during a phone interview. "I was grateful after all we went through and she turned it around. She was very depressed when we were first came to San Pedro. I told her no matter what struggles you have, you can make it if you keep going."
Financially, Ella's tuition will be paid all four years, but she will have to cover her own room and board, said Aguilar, the club's College Bound Director. Ella will continue seeking scholarships to help her with that, Aguilar added.
Garnering the Posse Foundation scholarship was a huge honor and only came to Ella because of her leadership roles. The foundation searches for youths from public schools in "disadvantaged urban backgrounds with leadership qualities" who would often be overlooked by some colleges, according to its website.
In August, the San Pedro High student will begin her first stint at Bucknell, but she won't go it alone at the Pennsylvania school, a private university in the small town of Lewisburg which is tucked along the West Branch Susquehanna River. It's a community that stared at the tall African-American girl when she went on a visit -- a big reason the foundation seeks out multi-cultural diversity in training future leaders.
The Posse foundation selects about nine candidates to head together to each of its 40 plus participating campuses including high end universities such as Boston College to Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. The students are expected to work as a team successfully to finish college and to "transform the landscape of leadership."
When Ella received the phone call from Posse in December, "I was beyond excited," she said. "I ran into my mom's room and she was clapping. I am going to strive to do my best for the next four years. And I'm going to give back to my community. I'm going to give back to the club."
For many here who worked with Ella, they don't doubt that promise for a moment.
(Diana Chapman is a CityWatch contributor and has been a writer/journalist for nearly thirty years. She has written for magazines, newspapers and the best-seller series, Chicken Soup for the Soul. You can reach her at: [email protected] or her website: theunderdogforkids.blogspot.com) –cw
Vol 11 Issue 42
Pub: May 24, 2013