After years of fighting odds, payoff for west-side student

College: Overcoming a tough childhood and poor role models, he wins a UM scholarship

May 27, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Dontay Jackson isn't sure which part of his life has been hardest. After thinking about it for a moment, the West Baltimore 18-year-old settles on this: everything.

He didn't have enough to eat at home growing up and would sometimes get by on toast - maybe with jelly - between trips to local soup kitchens.

He has slept in the back of a pickup truck because his mother's boyfriend got mad and kicked him and his brothers and sisters out of the house.

His father has been all but absent.

And he watched several of his eight siblings make bad choices: getting pregnant, dropping out of school or ending up in trouble with the law.

Dontay could easily have made bad choices, too. But instead, the senior at Edmondson-Westside High School is on his way to four free years of study at the University of Maryland, College Park. He and eight other city students were named Baltimore Incentive Awards Program scholars this month, in large part because of their ability to beat adversity and demonstrate leadership.

Dontay is engaging, poised and polite. (He still uses "Yes, ma'am" and "Yes, sir.") He's involved in everything from his school's step team - a dance fraternity - to its math, engineering and science club. He says he is eager to have children because he has learned from his own family experience what to do and what not to do.

He also can't wait to get his diploma - June 8 is the big day - and start working toward an engineering degree at College Park.

"I'm ready to explode," says Dontay, who is slimly built and wears an earring in each ear. "I'm just ready to do my thing."

There are plenty of reasons why Dontay might not have made it to this point. He's the seventh of nine children born to a mother who couldn't provide even the basics for her family. Soup kitchens and shelters were common, he says; so was not having enough food to go around.

"A couple of times, I felt like I was gonna die of starvation," he says.

Self-motivated youth

Dontay moved from place to place as a boy, from the Park Heights area to North Avenue to East Lafayette Avenue to Cockeysville. He attended a string of elementary schools. If and when his mother was around, she wouldn't make him or his siblings go to school, so some of them didn't.

But Dontay did.

"Maybe I liked the school. Maybe I felt wanted at the school," he says. "Plus, they had meals, so we could eat."

Even back then, his mother's cousin took notice of little Dontay's drive.

"That boy's gonna be something in life," he remembers her saying.

She's the one who called protective services about the conditions in which Dontay and his siblings were living when Dontay was 8. He had been in foster care once before, so he knew what was happening when social services workers came to the house, taking him and his brothers and sisters away in a van, only to split them up.

A couple of boys homes and foster homes later, Dontay was placed with foster mother Pandora Phillips. He has been living with her in a comfortable brick rowhouse off U.S. 40 near the county line for about 10 years.

Phillips, 56, an employee of Northrop Grumman, has provided stability and structure for Dontay. Sometimes he might start to stray, she says, but he has always wanted to do the right thing, despite his family's problems.

"Some people would wallow in that and dwell on it," she says.

Ronnie Graham has worked as Dontay's therapist since Dontay was 9. Dontay resisted the help at first but now sees Graham as a father figure. Occasionally, Graham, 43, drops by the house just to check in, or the two shoot hoops.

What has kept Dontay on the right path, Graham says, is largely the support of Phillips, his elder sister Natasha and people at Edmondson.

"Dontay wants to be nurtured, he wants that support and that love. And I think he works well when you give him that," he says. "This kid has gone through a lot. He's been through the ups and downs. For him to maintain the composure that he has and the niceness that he has, it's amazing. He has so much positive energy. This kid really has hope."

Tasha, 26, as his elder sister is called, has been another mother to him. She was the first member of the family to graduate from college - Towson University - and has pushed him to become the second.

"He's the only one I saw that had so much initiative, so much drive, to want education, to want more," she says.

Dontay stays in touch with his biological mother, Gloria Jackson. She and the rest of Dontay's fan club cheered so loudly during a recent reception honoring him and the other scholarship recipients that he could feel himself turn red.

Even with encouragement, though, Dontay is a study in self-motivation.

"I have to be," he says. "When I was growing up, I was the only person who really wanted to do something with my life. ... I feel I can do this. I feel I can do that. I can be successful in life."

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