ST. PETERSBURG — Donald Smith stepped off a Greyhound bus four years ago hoping for a fresh start. But he had no money and nowhere to go.
Smith, 21, slept on sidewalks, hung out at parks, learned which organizations offered meals.
Then one day, he saw a cream-colored building across from Mirror Lake. Tomlinson Adult Learning Center, the sign read.
Maybe this place could help him get a place to stay or a job.
Inside, he met a retired Navy reserves captain named Hugh Tulloch who would change his life. Tulloch, 71, had recently retired after traveling the world as a sales manager for Honeywell.
Restlessness lead him to volunteer with Tomlinson's literacy program, where he took Smith under his wing in 2007.
Neither man thought it would work.
Smith had never had been that close to white people. Tulloch wasn't sure how to reach the young black man who seemed to be a loner.
"I'm thinking, this guy doesn't know whether he wants to bother with me or not," said Tulloch. "If he runs off I'm not going to be astonished."
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Growing up in Alabama, Donald Smith never got along with teachers.
He struggled to ask for help when he didn't understand something. He kept quiet in the back of classrooms. Soon he avoided interacting with teachers at all, and dropped out in the 10th grade.
Then, in 2006, Smith's sister was killed in a drive-by shooting. Smith spent hours holed up in a room. He tried drugs.
"I was at a point where I was like going crazy in my head," said Smith, now 24.
His father persuaded him to come to Florida.
Within weeks, Smith and Tulloch had settled into a groove at Tomlinson.
They read together a couple of times a week. Despite being homeless, Smith always showed up on time, clean, sober and ready to work.
"It didn't take long to find out that Donald is an intellectually curious guy," Tulloch said. "Not everyone who walks through the door is. It was obvious from Day 1 that there was a lot of potential."
Smith said volunteers and teachers at Tomlinson made him want to do better. They were patient, helped him understand things and gave him purpose.
Still, Smith says that even he had no plans to go beyond the GED.
Tulloch wanted more: "I told him fairly early that my goal was to make a taxpayer out of him."
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It wasn't always easy.
When times were good, Smith stayed in a shelter or rented a room with money he made detailing cars. When times were bad, he fought depression and stopped coming by Tomlinson.
Finally, last summer, Smith decided he was ready for the GED test.
"We're sitting on pins and needles, and he nailed it," Tulloch said. "We kind of looked at each other and said, 'What now?' "
Tulloch, who has been married for 48 years but has no children, researched industries expected to grow over the next several years and settled on health care. He persuaded Smith to enroll in Pinellas Technical Education Centers' certified nursing assistant course in September.
But there was a problem: Smith was still homeless and had no money to pay for school.
Tulloch connected with financial aid specialists at PTEC, who told him about a program for low-income students.
Smith secured a long-term bed at the Beacon House so he would have a regular place to sleep and wash. Tulloch paid for Smith to get updated shots and white scrubs required for his class. He bought Smith a cell phone so prospective employers could get in touch with him.
Smith graduated from the program late last year. Tulloch took him out to dinner.
A few weeks later, Smith started work as an orderly at St. Anthony's Hospital, a job he got with the help of advocate for the homeless and former City Council member Jamie Bennett.
Recently, Smith moved from the Beacon House and found his own place. He's working three to four days a week at the hospital. He has a bank account.
"Being with Hugh was the best thing that happened to me here at Tomlinson and in St. Pete," said Smith. "I've grown tremendously since coming to Florida."
Tulloch and Smith still meet twice a week at Tomlinson.
They've moved on from reading simple chapter books and are working on their next goal: preparing Smith to attend St. Petersburg College this summer or fall. Smith plans to enroll in the nursing program with hopes of getting an even better job.
Before that, however, he has a more pressing matter: filing taxes for the first time in his life.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at (727) 893-8643 or email@example.com.