The phrase “changing people’s lives” is spoken daily in the world of education and advocacy. I, myself, have been saying it for years. And though I’ve meant these words sincerely on every occasion, it wasn’t until I’d met a truly extraordinary One Million Degrees Scholar that I really understood the two-way street all of us are traveling down within this special community.
On a Saturday morning in 2008, during an OMD mentoring session on the 4th floor of the City Colleges of Chicago headquarters, I met Jarrett Adams. Jarrett was in our first class of scholarship students at South Suburban Community College, all of whom were the recipients of grant funding OMD had secured in an exciting new partnership with the state of Illinois.
As I read through Jarrett’s bio, and then spoke with him about his life, I was nearly speechless (rare). Jarrett had endured the ineffable horror of being wrongfully convicted for an assault crime he did not commit, and then served nine years in a federal penitentiary. Had it not been for his remarkable survival instinct to learn the law – in prison – and then participate in his own defense appeal, he would have lost many more years of his life to that phantom felony. I am continually stunned and inspired by his strength and resilience.
As I took an active interest in Jarrett’s pursuits, we got to know each other not only as colleagues in a scholarship program, but as friends. I’m glad to say that some advice and introductions led to Jarrett earning and succeeding in a full-time investigator position in the Federal Public Defender’s Office. I will never forget the first time Jarrett proudly flashed his badge at lunch with me – a badge given to him by the same U.S. Justice Department that stole nine years of his life. The irony is thicker than quicksand.
And then over the years, I attended Jarrett’s South Suburban graduation, his keynote speech when he graduated Roosevelt University with a B.A. in criminal justice, and the award ceremony in 2012 where he was honored with the Abraham Lincoln Marovitz Public Interest Law Scholarship – to attend Loyola Law School. Jarrett recently graduated from Loyola, and three weeks ago, he passed the New York Bar exam. And somehow, during whatever spare time he can find, this survivor has started a “Life After Justice” program to help his fellow exonorees. Not only has Jarrett transformed his own life – he is dedicated to changing others’.
Jarrett often thanks me and expresses his gratitude toward One Million Degrees. But I do not pretend to think that he could not have achieved all of this without the academic and financial supports provided by our OMD program. I know for a fact that he would have. And this is where that “two-way street” comes more clearly into focus. Last November, Jarrett joined my loved ones for the Thanksgiving holiday. And as I looked across the room to see him bouncing my baby cousin on his knee, what I saw was a picture of family.
Jarrett and I are the brothers we each never really had, and we say this to each other often. But the truth is, even though I don’t know them all in the same way I know Jarrett, each and every scholar, staff member, board member, and volunteer in the OMD community feels like family. This weekend, Jarrett returns to his Chicago OMD family to deliver the keynote address at our 9th Annual Food & Wine Tasting Event. Another highlight in a journey where there’s been no shortage of them.
Ten years ago, five founding board members sat in a small downtown conference room and mapped out the future of One Million Degrees. We discussed how the program would empower students to succeed both in school and in life. How we could help as many as possible. Why it was so important to us. The seminal spirit behind those original principles of teamwork and achievement has only mushroomed as our program has grown.
All of us in the OMD community want to give something of ourselves. We’re all rowing in the same direction toward achievement, friendship and success. We all care about changing students’ lives. And more often than we probably ever realize, all of these new friends that we’re working with are changing our lives, too. Symbiotic relationships. And genuine gifts.