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Homeless teen named valedictorian: 'Never let anyone tell you that you can't do something'

May 27, 2014 at 5:46 PM ET

Video: In TODAY’s Take, Natalie Morales, Willie Geist, Al Roker and Tamron Hall discuss a Florida student who lost his mother to leukemia, was homeless, and went on to become valedictorian of his class. “When you see a kid like this, it’s incredible,” says Tamron.

Through homelessness, the death of his mother and numerous other hardships endured on his way to becoming class valedictorian, Florida high school student Griffin Furlong always clung to one belief. 

"Just never give up,'' Furlong, who has long had that motto written on the bill of his baseball cap, told TODAY.com. "Never let anyone tell you that you can't do something, because I've been told that all my life. People would tell me I wasn't smart enough, and now I'm here at the top of my class." 

Furlong, 18, will give the speech to his fellow seniors on graduation day for First Coast High School in Jacksonville on June 4, after finishing with a 4.65 grade-point average.

Family hardships have resulted in Furlong living in homeless shelters for varying stints since he was 7 years old, including staying in one for a period last month before he moved in with his girlfriend's family, and then with his aunt and uncle. When he was six years old, his mother died from leukemia, and he said he also endured periods of his life where his family was starving and barely able to survive. 

"I had to grow up really fast,'' he said. "I've seen things that kids wouldn't ever see in their lives. I would be starving at night, and I've seen my dad physically abused in front of me. I don't take anything for granted any more." 

Very few of Furlong's friends and teachers knew about his situation outside of school, but achieving the honor of valedictorian has let more people know about what he has overcome.

"It's definitely taken a little weight off my shoulders,'' he said. "I don't just walk up to people and say, 'Hey, I'm homeless.' It's a hard thing to do. Only a few of my best friends know everything that has ever happened." 

He can still remember the day as a 7-year-old when he walked five miles with his father and older brother, Sean, to stay in a Louisville homeless shelter. 

"It was night time, and there were no sheets on the bed and the mattresses were hard and plastic,'' he said. "I couldn't sleep for the whole first month we were there." 

The family lived there for a year and then lived in a different shelter for two more years. 

"I would have a special bus I had to ride to school and people would think something was wrong with me,'' Furlong said. "A lot of kids made fun of me, but I didn't let that interfere with what I did in school. I had a plan — just make good grades, and don't worry about anyone else but my family." 

Griffin also formed a tight bond with Sean, 21, who is set to graduate from Florida State University in August. 

"When I was going through that, I couldn't tell my friends what I was going through,'' Sean told TODAY.com. "I couldn't invite them to my house, so it was mainly just me and Griffin, and we did everything together, baseball especially.  "He's just a really tough individual. He's younger than me, but I still look up to him." 

His family moved to Jacksonville when Griffin was in sixth grade, and he fixated on academics as a ticket out of a difficult situation. 

"I knew I was going to be poor for the rest of my life, so I thought if I could continue to do well in school, eventually scholarships would be coming my way and I would be getting a free education,'' he said. "I would look up things and talk to teachers. I was aware of what I could do if I kept making good grades." 

Despite the obstacles, he never missed a single day of high school, which he credits to the help he received from friends. Griffin now looks to attend Florida State just like his brother, where he plans on majoring in engineering. He recently received a scholarship to help pay for his housing and is hoping to secure academic scholarship money to help pay tuition. His friends and family have also set up a GoFundMe page to help him raise money. 

The memory of their mother has also propelled the brothers to achieve their goals. 

"I was really young, but I still remember seeing her ill at home,'' Griffin said. "I'd cry every night. My brother and I made a pact saying we would do everything for her, and do everything to make our family's life better." 

"We always want to keep her in our memories,'' Sean said. "She graduated from Murray State in Kentucky, and knowing that motivated us to want to get our degree like she did. I just can't wait until (Griffin's) graduation on June 4. He's gotten so much support from the Jacksonville community and our friends that it will be a great moment." 

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