by John Kelly, columnist
The Washington Post
December 9, 2014
Kiara Williams knows what people want to hear.
“They want to hear about me,” says the 18-year-old, “but they want to hear the story that comes behind it, basically.”
The story that comes behind it.
That’s the story that explains how what Kiara is doing now — something that so many of us take for granted — is, in her case, something extraordinary, something inspiring.
Kiara takes a deep breath.
“Okay,” she begins. “We went through a lot. My high school years were basically the big struggle. I missed a lot of school, but I always kept my grades up. In ninth grade, I missed about three months all together because we moved from Maryland to D.C. But when we moved from Maryland, we moved to a one-bedroom apartment with a lot of people.”
Kiara is one of 12 children in her family. At the time — four years ago — there were nine living at home with Kiara’s mother.
“It was hard,” Kiara continues. “Very hard.”
As difficult as it was to live in a one-bedroom apartment, things got worse. The family was forced to move in with Kiara’s adult sister, whose house had no electricity or water.
“It was a struggle for everyone to get clean just to go to school,” she says. “It was a struggle to eat.”
After six months, Kiara’s family moved again, to the homeless shelter at D.C. General.
“That was the worst,” Kiara says. “Out of everywhere, that was the worst.. . . It was uncomfortable because I was getting older, changing, and the men were staring.”
Kiara worried about herself, and she worried about her little sisters. She worried most of all when she couldn’t go to school, a place that had become a refuge for her.
In the middle of 11th grade, after almost a year at D.C. General, Kiara’s family found what’s known as permanent supportive housing through Community of Hope, a local charity that is a partner with The Washington Post Helping Hand.
In addition to a spacious apartment near Benning Road, Kiara got the support of Roderic Irby, a Community of Hope youth specialist, and Amber Anyanwu, a housing stability case manager.
Roderic asked Kiara what her goals were. Graduating from Coolidge High School, of course, but why stop there? “She said she wanted to go to college,” Roderic says. “Well, okay. This is what we’re going to do.”
He arranged for Kiara to take the SAT. He leaned on her to do her college applications, including the dreaded essay.
Kiara graduated ninth in her class at Coolidge. She applied to 30 colleges and was accepted by 16. None gave her a full ride, but Delaware State University gave her the best financial aid, $18,000 over four years. With the help of Community of Hope, she applied for scholarships and seemed to have all her costs covered.
But three weeks before classes were supposed to start, a problem arose. A random check of financial aid applications revealed that two boxes had been checked in different ways, a clerical error that threatened to take weeks to fix.
“We just didn’t take no for an answer, right?” Amber says to Kiara.
Community of Hope contacted the university president, who put them in touch with the school’s head of financial aid. The problem was cleared up. Kiara was going to college!
A week later, Delaware State calculated that Kiara was $6,000 short. Kiara wasn’t going to college.
Community of Hope and Delaware State found more scholarships. Kiara was going to college!
Then, a few days before class was to begin, they were $1,200 short.
School started without Kiara. One week went by as Community of Hope and Delaware State scrambled to find more money. Then two weeks. Kiara resigned herself to not going to college.
Then, on the day before Delaware State would not allow any new students to start classes. . . . Well, I’ll let Kiara tell it:
“I remember it like it was yesterday. I was doing my brother’s girlfriend’s hair. I got a call from Amber. She said I had to go to the school today or tomorrow. I was really happy. I didn’t show it, but I was really happy.”
Early the next morning, Roderic and Amber picked Kiara up at home to drive her to Union Station. One of her brothers ran after their car, shouting his encouragement.
At the station, Roderic and Amber said their goodbyes.
“I didn’t want to cry,” Kiara says. “I kept it all together till I was on the train and I was by myself.”
And then, as the train sped towards a dream that once seemed unattainable, Kiara pulled a blanket over her head and let the tears come.
She is studying nursing and hopes to become a pediatrician.
You can help
Community of Hope played a vital role in Kiara’s story. By donating to the charity, you can help lift a D.C. family from homelessness. A gift of $50 covers the cost of an outing for a mentor and a homeless youth; $100 will provide a homeless family with one full day of emergency shelter; $250 supports consultations with an employment specialist; and $500 covers a week of rent for a family in its own apartment. Any amount will be much appreciated.
You can make a tax-deductible contribution by visiting www.posthelpinghand.com and clicking where it says “Donate to Community of Hope.” To give by mail, send a check payable to “Community of Hope” to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20032.
This article first appeared in The Washington Post on December 9, 2014.