As a former staff writer for the Daily Breeze and the San Diego Union-Tribune newspapers -- and a contributor to the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul books, Diana Chapman has covered the issues peoplefind important. In this blog, she focuses on the community programs and resources that benefit children and teens. Also visit her blog: http://www.secretlifeinmybackyard.blogspot.com. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org @
Homeless "Anti-Social" Student Finds Her Way at the Boys and Girls
Club And Receives Coveted Posse Scholarship; It's a First for San Pedro High
By Diana L.
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,
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.
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
like a helpless newborn, vulnerable and exposed," she would later write in
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.
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.
including Ella, no crystal ball was showing a way out of their often
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.
each day, her mom had to drive her in a "crappy car that I had to
pushjust 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."
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."
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.
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."
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 Boys 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,
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.
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.
was so happy and so thankful for that," Torres explained, but "I always
knew she was meant for greatness."
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
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
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.
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.
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
For many here who worked with Ella, they don't doubt
that promise for a moment.