Sometimes it truly does take a village to raise a child.
Last month I told you about Ladarious Jackson, the two-time state wrestling champion who overcame enormous obstacles to graduate from Gulf High School and earn a scholarship to Indiana Tech University. Hardly a day goes by that I don't hear from somebody around the country inspired by Ladarious and his high school coach, Travis DeWalt, whom I believe saved the young man's life.
Ladarious had entered Gulf as a freshman with severe emotional problems that had haunted him since birth and caused him to fail as a student at every level. His mother had an extensive criminal record and had gone to prison on a cocaine charge when pregnant with Ladarious. She eventually had 10 children from 10 different men. Ladarious never knew his father.
On his first day at the New Port Richey high school, he stood on the playground and barked at passing cars. The head football coach delivered him to DeWalt, the wrestling coach who had just taken on an assignment as dropout prevention officer. He paid attention to Ladarious. The team circled around the boy, who for the first time in his life tasted success.
And at the end of that freshman year, he stood with his coach at an awards banquet to honor kids who had changed their attitudes about school. Even after his mother dumped all his belongings in the trash and left Ladarious to fend for himself, he progressed under the watchful eye of his coach who would not let him fail again, who demanded responsibility and effort in the classroom.
Kathryn Starkey was at that Turnaround Achievement Awards banquet as a member of the Pasco School Board. Ladarious moved her. She stayed in touch. More importantly, she shared his story with her husband, Trey, who is on the board of Eckerd, a youth services organization that since 1968 has helped thousands of at-risk children and their families.
Starkey's fellow board members quickly recognized that Ladarious Jackson could be a poster child for their mission of second chances. They raised $5,000 within the Eckerd circle in his name, set up a bank account and arranged for him to have $200 a month in spending money at college. They bought his plane ticket and one for DeWalt to visit him later.
Meanwhile, Paul Whanish, director of Career Technical Education Foundation, donated a laptop full of software he'll need as he studies criminal justice. And Tim Marks, chief officer of Metropolitan Ministries, outfitted Ladarious with some cold weather clothing.
Late last week, Kathryn Starkey realized Ladarious didn't own luggage. Kim Looby, senior vice president of external relations at Eckerd, put out an e-mail and — voila! — problem solved. Starkey told him to keep some important papers in his wallet and learned he didn't have a wallet. She took him shopping.
Finally, last Friday, Starkey drove Ladarious to Tampa International. He wore an orange and black Indiana Tech Warriors sweatshirt. She asked him about coming home for Thanksgiving and Christmas and he said, "Why would I want to do that?''
"We look at things differently,'' Starkey said.
He made it to the campus where he'll rent a room for a month before moving into a dorm with other athletes.
"I think he's going to be okay,'' Starkey said.
Another update further demonstrates the generosity of our community, if not quite on the same level.
Anthony Robinson went to his mailbox in Brooksville last Saturday morning and found an envelope from a man in Spring Hill. He opened it and found a $1,000 check in his name.
"I was stunned,'' he said.
The man had called me after reading about Robinson. He wanted to help. He did not want to be publicly identified.
Robinson needs a kidney transplant but must come up with $5,000 to get on the list, money that ensures he will get post-operative medicine. His kidneys suffered from the effects of anti-rejection drugs he has taken for 23 years since he had a heart transplant the day before his 14th birthday. His heart had failed because of drugs he took when diagnosed with leukemia while a student at Lacoochee Elementary School.
He worked several years at the Juvenile Detention Center near Dade City, but had to quit when his kidneys began to fail. He now endures dialysis 10 hours each day and tries to stay ahead of those who would repossess his 2007 Chevy Malibu because he can't afford the $376 monthly payments.
Robinson's family and friends are trying to raise money for him through the New Bethel AME Church in Lacoochee, one of Pasco's poorest communities. He's not discouraged. Far from it.
"In the mailbox with that thousand dollars was another envelope with $10 in it,'' he explained last week. "That was all somebody could afford. There was no note. It made me cry.''