Beating The Odds
East Bay execs helping at-risk kids like Christopher Robinson find their way to college
When Diana Lusby heard that her 15-year-old son’s best friends had gotten arrested, she felt her heart drop into her stomach. She knew Christopher wasn’t involved—he was at school when the other kids were hotwiring a car and getting in a high-speed chase with Pittsburg police, and her son seemed disturbed that his friends were on their way to Juvenile Hall. But Lusby sensed in him just the slightest hint of admiration, and it terrified her.
She remarked that Christopher was lucky he had not gone along, and he said he would never be so stupid. That did not allay her fears. She knew he was vulnerable to peer pressure because he so valued being popular and part of the crowd.
“I knew it was easy to go the wrong way,” Lusby says, “and I could see where it was headed.”
Christopher had managed to straddle two worlds most of his childhood, but recently one world had started to exert more influence—and Lusby didn’t find that encouraging. In junior high, he was a student leader with a 3.8 GPA who loved math and computers. After school, he hung out with kids from the Bully—short for the West Boulevard part of Pittsburg—where stabbings and drug dealing are all too common. When Christopher was in 10th grade,
Lusby felt helpless as she watched his grades drop from As and Bs to Cs and Ds. But luckily for him, circumstances were lining up to provide a second chance.
LUSBY HAD MADE it to Brooks College in Long Beach when she was 18, but she dropped out when she became pregnant with Christopher, cutting short her dream of becoming a clothing designer. She and Christopher’s father, Sam Robinson, moved in together, and Lusby started working full time.
Tragedy struck three years later, when Robinson died in a car accident. Lusby left Long Beach on a Greyhound bus with Christopher in her lap and $200 in her pocket, heading to Pittsburg to be near her family. She worked minimum-wage jobs in customer service and at a nursing home to afford a two-bedroom apartment in a bad neighborhood.
Her experience motivated her to do everything possible to make sure Christopher had a chance at a better life.
“I had always wanted a college education, and I didn’t want him to get bogged down in the minimum-wage cycle I was in,” says Lusby, a 39-year-old who talks eagerly and affectionately about her son.
Although Christopher was disadvantaged—living in a single-parent household in a poor part of town—his intelligence and energetic personality made him popular with peers and teachers. He qualified for a gifted program for grades three through six, and Lusby made sure he worked to his potential, insisting he finish his homework before going outside to play. In junior high, he was elected school president. He was maturing into a 6-foot, 230-pound football player who wore his hair in a braid—and was careful not to let smarts tarnish his popularity.
Once Christopher entered high school in 2001, Lusby started to see disturbing changes in him. His neighborhood friends headed straight to the mall or bowling alley after school instead of doing homework, and Christopher wanted to go with them. These were the same kids she had seen skipping school—the ones who would hotwire the car. Christopher’s grades started dropping, and he seemed uninterested in college.
“His friends were the most important thing to him, so it was easy to be distracted by what the other kids were doing,” Lusby says. “I told him that the path he was on wouldn’t get him to college.”
For Christopher, these conversations about his future seemed a waste of time. “I wasn’t really thinking about college,” says Christopher, now a 20-year-old with a quiet, unassuming manner. “I had no clue, because I didn’t know anyone who went to college before me.”
About the time Christopher was starting eighth grade, a business leader from San Ramon had an experience that would cause their lives to intersect. Vintage Foster, then the publisher of the East Bay Business Times, was married at the time with no children. It was Christmas 1999, and he felt that he didn’t need anything himself and would rather buy gifts for less fortunate people.
He adopted an East Oakland family of three boys, ages four to seven, who were living with a single father. Foster enjoyed buying and wrapping the presents, but he was thrown off when the boys rushed to his car and saw them in his trunk. He had thought that he was supposed to give the gifts to the father, who would then pass them along to the kids.
As Foster drove away, he felt frustrated. The father had not thanked him for the gifts, and neither had the boys. When he thought about the fact that he had not volunteered in order to be thanked but because it was the right thing to do, Foster realized what was really nagging him.
“What was bothering me was that the last thing in the world a single black father needs to teach his kids is that there is some organization that is going to bail them out,” says Foster. “If those kids didn’t learn that they can do things for themselves and create opportunities for themselves, they would be in trouble. They knew that there was a system that would give them food. I am not against food stamps and welfare, but I thought about the kids who had great talent but didn’t do anything about it because they didn’t know how.”
Foster grew up in a lower middle-class neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio, the youngest of three brothers. His father was a civil engineer who taught his sons the necessity of attending college and their responsibility to help those less fortunate. Foster went on to become one of the youngest publishers in the country, at 25, when he landed a job at a Knight Ridder magazine.
When Foster explained to his then wife how he felt about the gift-giving incident, she challenged him to act on his frustration, and he did. He called 20 friends from the East Bay who were heads of companies and asked them to pony up $50,000 each to help teens from Oakland, Pittsburg, Richmond, and Vallejo who needed money to go to college. Business executives including J. Craig Van Selow, then East Bay market president for Wells Fargo Bank, Ray Wilkins, then president and CEO of Pacific Bell of California, and Mike Brown, then managing partner of the law firm Morgan Miller Blair, were among the 15 leaders who agreed to help out. They convinced their companies to donate money, and in 2001 the East Bay Leadership Foundation was born.
“I thought it was an important approach to challenge kids who have the intellectual potential to become successful but might not understand how to do that because of family or personal situations,” says Van Selow, who is now president and CEO of Mt. Diablo National Bank and cochairman of the board of directors for the leadership foundation. “Vintage said he was not going to try and revamp the educational system but instead would tap corporate leaders for what they do best, which is provide guidance for people about how to be successful.”
At first, Foster thought that he would simply recruit promising students who were caught in unfortunate circumstances and offer them mentoring and scholarship money. The foundation would find the students via guidance counselors in schools serving lower-income neighborhoods. But a year into the program, he realized these students needed a more customized development program to reach their potential.
“We were CEOs who were used to dedicating resources to get a job done,” says Foster, who is now publisher of the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal. “It’s not that simple. This work is extremely messy, and we needed to do a lot more hand-holding.”
He saw the extent to which many of the students’ lives were complicated by living in tough, impoverished neighborhoods and by parents who were in prison or addicted to drugs. Foster and about 20 board members decided to hire a director who could further develop the program.
Enter Unique Holland. Holland was working as program director of the Institute for Social Justice and Education at the University of San Francisco when she heard about the job opening. “I really wanted to do work that was a little more connected to students rather than doing policy-level, bureaucratic stuff,” she says. “Two foundation board members told me about the opportunity, and it sounded perfect for me.”
Holland was hired in 2002, and her first task was to design the support program. She decided to recruit mentors from among recent college graduates who had an interest in education. Now the program has five, each of whom works with 12 to 15 students in ninth through 12th grades from Oakland, Richmond, Pittsburg, Vallejo, or San Jose. The mentors—who have regular day jobs, such as teaching, technical support, and working as a college activities coordinator—meet with the students individually or in a group at least twice a month to help with anything from math and English homework to filling out college applications and financial aid forms.
The foundation is also available for students when life deals an unexpected card. For example, a high school senior who was in foster care turned 18 four weeks before she graduated. The foster care system stopped providing financial assistance to the family and expected her to live on her own. She found herself without a home a month before graduation. The foundation stepped in to find her temporary housing for the summer, and she started college a few months later.
Using referrals from guidance counselors, teachers, community members, and church leaders, the program now recruits about 25 new students each year. Seniors who complete the program and are accepted into college are offered up to $8,500 a year for four years. Most foundation students are also eligible for financial aid, including student loans, which helps provide any remaining money needed. The organization raises about $750,000 a year, and roughly 75 percent of that money goes to scholarships, an endowment for scholarships, and program costs such as field trips and paying the academic mentors. The remaining 25 percent goes toward operations costs, such as office staff salaries.
The foundation’s method seems to work. About 100 students are in the program: 37 in college and 65 high school students in the mentoring program. Although some drop out of the program in the first year, more than 80 percent of those who complete the first year are accepted into college. The first foundation student will graduate from college this summer.
When Christopher hit 11th grade, a teacher realized he had talent that was about to go down the drain.
“He was very outspoken, articulate, and well liked, and I saw that he had great potential as far as being a leader,” says Danny Lockwood, who taught English. “But at the time, he wasn’t focused.”
Lockwood gave Christopher an application for the foundation program, and Christopher was pleased he had been singled out. He had little idea what he was applying for, but he applied nonetheless. His acceptance letter arrived with an invitation to an orientation at UC Berkeley.
Christopher was impressed with the campus, and he was also impressed with Foster because he seemed hip and successful. But even more significant to Christopher was the chance to mix with other students like himself.
He started meeting with his mentor and the other foundation students from Pittsburg. His mentor, Jacquelyn Ng, a high school teacher at Piedmont Hills High in San Jose, asked the students to think about what they’d like to do for a living. Christopher wanted to work with computers. He had always enjoyed taking them apart to see what was inside and then putting them back together. As the group grew closer, Christopher became friends with kids who were on their way to college, unlike his friends back in the hood, and this changed him, his mother says.
“He wasn’t playing dumb anymore,” says Lusby, who is now married and works as a departmental assistant for a dental insurance company. “He could see a future for himself, and he stopped going out as much. College became real for him.”
Christopher looked forward to the monthly foundation meetings, when all the foundation students gathered for workshops from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. He started learning how to research which colleges were strong in computer engineering, when to take the SAT, and how to fill out financial aid forms. The workshops also taught him time and money management and study skills.
He looked into college entrance qualifications and chose to apply to four California State universities: Chico, Hayward, Humboldt, and Sacramento. He was accepted at all, and he chose Chico State.
Christopher seemed on his way to a career in computer engineering as his classes were starting up at Chico in August 2005. Unfortunately, he made a mistake that threatened his dream of being the first in his family to graduate from college.
Christopher got into a fight one night and was arrested by campus police. Someone had been saying negative things to his friend, and when Christopher stepped in to stop a fight, one of the boys attacked him, Christopher says. Christopher picked him up and put him on the ground.
His mother was devastated. Christopher had never been in fights, and this was out of character. The school suspended him for a year but agreed to let him return the following August. Christopher had a choice: leave permanently out of frustration and anger or submit to the consequences and learn from his mistake.
Holland admits she was disappointed, but she knew that failures had the potential to teach important lessons.
“I felt it was important for him to understand it was serious but that I wouldn’t abandon him,” she says. “I wanted him to know he was in a privileged position at Chico, and he had to take that seriously. Some of us have to learn the hard way that there is a big difference between high school and college. Things that can pass in high school won’t pass in college.”
The foundation board decided that Christopher could continue receiving his scholarship of $8,500 a year if he enrolled in classes when he moved back home. He also needed to write a letter of apology to the board.
The incident only deepened Christopher’s drive. “At one point, I was really sad and upset, but I realized that I can overcome,” he says. “I just needed to stay on the right path.”
During the year Christopher spent back at home, he missed out on a year of his Chico experience, but he gained character credits. He had to do 50 hours of community service by picking up trash on the side of the road. He also had to give up the excitement and prestige of being an adult on his own and accept his mother’s house rules. He could not make phone calls after 10 p.m., had to be home by 1 a.m., and had to do household chores such as raking the leaves and cleaning the bathroom. He enrolled in classes at Los Medanos Community College in Pittsburg.
Christopher returned to Chico last August. His journey out of Pittsburg is still in progress, but the path ahead looks more promising than ever. He is taking courses in electrical and computer engineering, and was eager to attend a convention of the National Society of Black Engineers in late March to learn about job opportunities. And, perhaps more important, he has a deeper sense of responsibility. He chooses friends carefully and thinks before he reacts.
“It’s not just about getting a diploma,” says Holland. “The real marker of maturity is learning to make the right decisions and to take responsibility for actions. That’s the kind of thing that you don’t learn in the classroom, and Christopher has learned that lesson.”
Christopher says he’s not going to mess up again.
“I appreciate school a lot more because I was really afraid I wouldn’t get my scholarship back,” Christopher says. “Now I think about the consequences my actions can have.”
For Lusby’s part, she is obviously proud of her son but is quick to give credit to the foundation. If it hadn’t been there to point the way for Christopher, his story might have had a very different ending.
“The foundation was an answer to my prayers,” she says. “If they hadn’t given Christopher a chance, he would not have stayed focused, and I hate to think about what would have happened.”
The East Bay Leadership Foundation’s Fifth Annual Q-Off, a grilling competition and fundraiser, will be held June 10 at the Oakland Museum. Call (510) 622-7522 for information.
Heather Stringer is a freelance writer living in Sunnyvale. �¡