Taking a break from the normal as I just saw this story and it is quite amazing!
- It's before sunrise, and the janitor at Burns High School has already been down the length of a hallway, cleaning and sweeping classrooms before the day begins. This particular janitor is painstakingly methodical, even as she administers a mental quiz on an upcoming test. Her name is Dawn Loggins, a straight-A senior at the very school she cleans.
- She was homeless at the start of the school year, abandoned by her drug-abusing parents. The teachers and others in town pitched in — donating clothes and providing medical and dental care. She got the janitorial job through a school workforce assistance program.
- She's grateful for the work. But it's where she's going next, beyond the walls of Burns, that excites her most. She applied to four colleges within North Carolina and one dream university. She'll graduate soon before heading off, leaving her dust pan behind.
- Dawn grew up in a ramshackle home with no electricity and no running water. She often went days, even weeks without showering. She and her brother Shane — who was equally studious in his schoolwork — would walk 20 minutes to a public park to fetch water. "We would get water jugs and fill them up at the park, using the spigots in the bathroom. And we would use that to flush the toilet or cook with. Stuff like that," she says.
- She confided in a staff member at school. She had trouble doing homework at nighttime because her home had no electricity and she couldn't afford candles. It was difficult to read in the dark. "OK, we'll get you some candles. We'll take care of that," said Junie Barrett, Dawn's supervisor.
- Burns High was their fourth high school since middle school, as they moved from town to town. Living the life of a rolling stone, the two had missed several months' worth of classwork when they first arrived two years ago, putting them well behind other students' progress.
- Last summer, Dawn was invited to attend a prestigious six-week residential summer program, the Governor's School of North Carolina, at Meredith College in Raleigh, 200 miles east of Lawndale, to study natural science. It was a field Dawn had never studied before. The program is reserved for the state's top students.
- Dawn saw her parents for 30 minutes during the middle of the summer program during a short break. They talked about her school and how she was doing. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. "It was just a regular conversation," she says. She wouldn't hear from them again for weeks. As she prepared to leave the summer program, she kept calling her parents' phone, only to learn it had been disconnected. Putnam picked her up and brought her back to Lawndale.
- "When I returned, my grandmother had been dropped off at a local homeless shelter, my brother had just left, and my parents had just gone," she says. "I found out later they had moved to Tennessee." Dawn was abandoned.
- For a while, Dawn lived on the odd couch at friends' homes, while she figured out what to do. Sometimes, she slept on the floor. The only thing that was clear was that she wanted to stay in Lawndale, where she was active in extracurricular activities, had a boyfriend and had a job. She could move yet again to Tennessee to be with her mother, or she could be turned over to the Department of Social Services. Putnam feared what that might bring. "If Dawn were to go into the system, she could be uprooted again and moved around," she says.
- Dawn would turn 18 during the second semester, Putnam knew, making her an adult by law. So Putnam asked Dawn: "What do you want to do? She said, 'I want to graduate from Burns. To be in the same school two years.' " So the community and Burns staff became her family.
- Sheryl Kolton, a custodian and bus driver for Burns Middle School, had met Dawn before and knew her but not well. She wasn't expecting the phone call she received. "The counselor at the high school just called me one day and asked me if Dawn could come live here," Kolton says. A few days later, she and her husband, Norm, agreed.
- With a roof over her head and the contributions of Burns staff to supplement the Koltons' income needed to house and feed a growing teenager, Dawn was seemingly in a stable environment. She admits that having her parents out of the picture helped. As she began her senior year, Dawn turned her laser-beam focus to her future: college. She knew she wanted a different path than her parents.
- Dawn applied to four colleges within the state: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; North Carolina State University; Davidson College; and Warren Wilson College. In December, she sent one final application off in the mail, to her reach-for-the-stars choice, Harvard. No one from Burns High had been accepted to the elite Ivy League school."I thought about it and just figured, 'Why not?' "
- She asked her history teacher, Larry Gardner, for a recommendation letter. "I don't know how many times I started that letter of recommendation," he recalls. "Because how do you articulate her story into two pages? How do you explain this is a young lady who deserves a chance but hasn't had the opportunities?" But after a prayer for wisdom, the words flowed.
- "Once again, words fail me as I attempt to write this letter of recommendation," Gardner began. "I can promise I've never written one like this before and will probably not write one like this again. Because most students who face challenges that are not even remotely as difficult as Dawn's give up. This young lady has, unlike most of us, known hunger. She's known abuse and neglect, she's known homelessness and filth. Yet she's risen above it all to become such an outstanding young lady."
- Months passed. She was accepted to the four schools in North Carolina. Each time, the acceptance letter came as part of a thick package with fat brochures and congratulatory notes. But on a sunny day earlier this year, she came inside after tending the garden. There was a letter from Harvard, the type of letter every high school senior dreads from a university — a regular-sized envelope, the ominous sign of rejection.
- Cautiously, she opened it: "Dear Ms. Loggins, I'm delighted to report that the admissions committee has asked me to inform you that you will be admitted to the Harvard College class of 2016. … We send such an early positive indication only to outstanding applicants …" She gasped when she read those words. Not only was Dawn accepted to Harvard, she got a full ride. She was offered tuition, room and board, as well as assistance finding an on-campus job.
- The tiny town of Lawndale rallied around Dawn again. They raised money to get her to Boston so she could see the school in person in April.
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