Fundraising helps teen go from homeless to Howard U.

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By Lilit Marcus

When most kids start their freshman year of college, it takes some time to get used to the small, cramped living spaces and to sharing a bathroom with a dozen people. 

But not James Ward. The Howard University student spent much of his childhood homeless, alternating between shelters and the street in LA’s dangerous Skid Row neighborhood. “I used to hide it from people,” James admits. “But now, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized there was nothing to be embarrassed (about) to begin with.”

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James’ journey to college began when Jessica Sutherland, who volunteers at LA’s Union Rescue Mission, found out that James had been accepted to Howard but couldn’t afford to go. Howard, the nation’s most prestigious HBCU (historically black college or university) boasts alums including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, and Academy Award-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson.

Although loans, scholarships, and grants covered about 70 percent of his tuition, James somehow had to come up with an additional $14,000. He thought it would never happen. That’s where Jessica, who was once homeless as well, stepped in. She created The James Fund, a website that asked people to donate to James’ college efforts.

Thanks to some endorsements from celebrities like rapper/actor Common, donations began to pour in. James even created a Tumblr blog, Homeless to Howard, to chronicle his journey. In just one week, James had enough money to pay for his freshman year. For the first time in his life, he got on an airplane and headed to Washington, D.C., to begin his new life.

“It was like a dream,” he said. “I didn’t know what to feel. I didn’t believe it.”

While James is modest about his achievements, Jessica says she always knew he was special. “James is an amazing kid that has persevered,” she says. “And despite it all, he only sees the positive of it.”

James’ college career may have just started, but his fundraising campaign still has a ways to go. He still has three more years of tuition to come up with, but he’s confident that it will come together. “No matter who you are in life, there’s always someone out there to help you … or someone out there that you can help.”

His blog now documents some of the ways that he gives back. “My family and I were homeless for several years,” he wrote, “and I look forward to creating a better life for all of us.”