The stench from Los Angeles’ skid row urine soaked streets can be almost overwhelming. And amid the old graffiti scarred buildings are people living in cardboard boxes or in other make shift shelters on the sidewalk.
It can be scary as some of these desperate people approach anyone nearby to demand money to feed a drug addiction. Violence can strike suddenly.
For the homeless people lucky enough to get a cot in a crowded shelter, it can be safer if not less noisy. And in the shelter, there are bathrooms and showers and the means to wash one’s clothes. Other than for those living in or by a shelter, getting something to eat can be a challenge.
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For most of her life, this was 18-year-old Khadijah Williams’ world, one with people just struggling to survive another day.
Born to a 14-year-old single mother, Khadijah and her younger sister along with their mother lived on the street or in shelters.
Carrying their few possessions, they would walk or board busses to find safer places to live. Their journey took them back and forth the 400 miles from Los Angeles to San Francisco and they stayed in many places in between, sometimes for months and other times for days or hours.
As a result Khadijah attended just half of the 4th and 5th grades, didn’t attend 6th grade, spent 7th grade at two different schools and 8th grade lasted for just two weeks.
But Khadijah is a gifted, hard working student, determined to lift herself from extreme poverty and become successful against seemingly impossible odds. Everywhere she went, she was quickly recognized as a gifted student, one who read 4 to 5 books a month, whether she was in school or not. In total, she attended 12 schools in 12 years.
Homelessness can be a recipe for disaster, but instead, because of Khadijah’s determination she attracted mentors and through them organizations and individuals who assisted her.
As close as she is to her mother and sister, two years ago while an 11th grader at Jefferson High School in South Central Los Angeles Khadijah came to a difficult decision. She knew she had to focus on academics to go to college and decided to stay in school where she was.
And also to stay where she lived, in the Orange County Armory.
But to get to Jefferson High School from there, she arose at 4 am to commute by bus and didn’t return until 11 pm. But by staying in one place, Khadijah attained the Academic Decathlon, as she made outstanding grades. She also was on the debate team and starred on the track team.
But for all of her remarkable accomplishments, she was forced to make a heart breaking decision for she knew her mother and sister, like many other homeless people, would move on.
During Khadijah’s senior year, through a support organization, South Central Scholars, she met Dr. James and Patricia London who live in an affluent Los Angeles suburb, Rancho Palos Verdes and they invited her to their home to assist her with her essays.
But one day when they drove her back to her mother and sister, they were gone without a trace. So the Londons reached out further to Khadijah and invited her to live with them for the rest of her senior year.
It is amazing how these things happen. In the worst of times, good hearted people arrive to offer a helping hand when it is most needed. And living with the Londons, Khadijah learned the basics of what so many of us take for granted, such as money management, proper grooming and table manners.
For these skills are not taught when one is growing up on the streets and climbing into dumpsters to find the next meal or washing one’s clothes in a public restroom.
This loving and stable home was just what Khadijah needed. In June she graduated with honors from Jefferson High School. And with all of her mentors and supportive organizations the word of her accomplishments had spread and she was accepted by over 20 universities.
One of those universities was one of America’s most prestigious, Harvard, and Khadijah proudly accepted a full scholarship. What prompted Harvard to offer her this scholarship?
“I told them,” said her Harvard interviewer, Julie Hilton, to the Los Angeles Times after Khadijah had been accepted. “‘If you don’t take her, you might be missing out on the next Michelle Obama. Don’t make this mistake.’ “
Thrilled that she would be going to Harvard, Khadijah wanted to share this outstanding news with her mother and sister. But she couldn’t find them.
But after some searching she found them at a South Central storage facility where they kept their clothes.
Khadijah stood in front of them in her green graduation cap and gown she would shortly wear at her 2009 high school graduation, and gave them the exciting news.
Soon, Khadijah explained, she would be flying 3,000 miles across the United States, to attend a Harvard summer program. She would not return to the skid row streets of Los Angeles.
Who can say when or even if mother, daughter and sister will ever see each other again? Let us hope they will. But on this happy occasion, those were thoughts for another time.
“Look at you,” her mother said in amazement. “You’re really going to Harvard, huh?”
“Yeah,” she replied. Then after a pause added, “I’m going to Harvard.”
And Harvard is where Khadijah is today.