CHICAGO — Rodney Walker believes every Chicago child is one caring adult from being a success story.
"Every kid that falls through the cracks is because they didn't have an adult who cared enough," Walker said.
For Walker, the man who saved him from the streets and helped guide him to Morehouse College, Yale and now possibly Harvard was Michael McGrone, the dean at ACE Technical Charter School when Walker was a senior there and in the midst of living in the 12th of 12 foster homes.
McGrone, now the principal at Rich South High School, ran an after-school mentorship club at ACE called the Ambassadors Program that took the school's most at-risk students, brought them together and forced them to discuss their pasts. For some, that meant revealing they had been raped or the targets of shootings.
For Walker, who lived all over the South Side with relatives and foster parents, that discussion entailed telling the story of his drug-addicted parents. Walker, 27, said he was removed from his parents' home when he was 5 and although he stayed in touch with them, the move from home to home left deep emotional scars.
"An intense, three-month program," McGrone said of Ambassadors. "He was able to confront some of the challenges of his life — his parents and how he was displaced from his home."
The all-in sessions were a turning point for Walker. After that, he was determined to become the first of his six siblings to go to college. He also made connections with a handful of Chicago education leaders, including Christine Poorman, the Chicago executive director of College Possible, and Jane Lee-Kwon, a former Chicago Board of Education administrator.
He was accepted to Morehouse and graduated with a degree in philosophy. He then earned a master's in ethics from Yale. McGrone, Poorman and Lee-Kwon attended both graduation ceremonies, and when Walker was back on break, he spent time living with all three.
Lee-Kwon, who helped Walker get an internship before he left for Morehouse, said she learned more about the struggles Chicago Public Schools students face in the nine weeks she supervised Walker than in 13 years of reports she read, data she analyzed and work she did.
"Rodney put a face on what it was like to be poor, black, hungry and homeless," Lee-Kwon said. "It was during that same time Rodney and I 'adopted' each other, and being his 'Tiger Mom' is one of the greatest honors of my life. Rodney is one in a million, and having him in my life makes me feel like I've won a lottery. His unfailing optimism and belief, determination and boundless enthusiasm for life amazes me, inspires me and enriches me immeasurably. I am so very proud of my son and so very thankful to be a part of his journey, as his destiny continues to unfold and reveal itself."
Said Poorman: "Becoming involved in Rodney’s life was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. Through Rodney, I learned what it takes to get a young person from a low-income/foster care community into and through college and inspired my career. While facing substantial obstacles that would have derailed almost anyone, Rodney kept a positive mental outlook and intense focus on his vision — college graduation and higher education."
Walker has applied to Harvard for a doctorate in education. While he's waiting to hear from the Ivy League school — a decision should arrive by March 15, he said — he's been living with McGrone while working in the Chicago Public Schools office of safety and security. If there's a fight or gang conflict or some other quarrel at a school, Walker is called to mediate.
"It's been pretty amazing to see him go from a depressed man going from home to home to someone who now has a chance to go to Harvard," McGrone said. "He's an extraordinary young man."
Walker last year wrote a book about his life called "A New Day One." He hopes his success is a blueprint for others to copy. He and McGrone eventually plan to go to schools across the country to teach McGrone's mentorship program to at-risk kids.
Walker said his existence is testament to a mentor's love.
"He imposed his will to help me out," Walker said. "Every child deserves to be a child, and so many are lost and they feel hopeless, and that's understandable. I hope they can find someone who can help them get to where they want to go."
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