Never Stop Telling Your Story: 7 Questions with Destiny Dickerson, an SHC Young Leader

Destiny Dickerson is a 19-year-old graduate of Rancho Cucamonga High School in Rancho Cucamonga, California. She currently attends San Diego State University, where she is majoring in Psychology in pursuit of a degree in Clinical Psychology. Destiny explains, “Having had to silently deal with so many mental health issues and watching others struggle in their own ways, I have developed a passion to want to help those struggling to find inner peace.”

Destiny at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.

Destiny was awarded a SchoolHouse Connection Scholarship in the fall of 2017. The SHC Youth Leadership and Scholarship Program provides scholarships to youth who have experienced homelessness to ensure their completion of a postsecondary education program. The program assists youth with financial aid processes, mental health advocacy and referrals, and professional legal advocacy and referrals. It also provides assistance in locating and establishing local contacts for general support and services; builds a stable peer and adult support network for recipients, before, during, and after their college careers, and into their transition into the workforce; and offers young people meaningful opportunities to engage in advocacy, while providing sustained support services to help ensure graduation and success in life. During the summer following their receipt of the scholarship, Young Leaders travel to Washington, DC for the annual DC Summit, where they share their wisdom, insights, and experiences with congressional and U.S. Department of Education policymakers.

Here, Destiny explains how education has been a powerful force in her life–and how she’s compelled to help other students experiencing homelessness be their own best advocates.

Can you tell us why education is important to you?

A large portion of my family, immediate or otherwise, is uneducated. As a result of this lack of education, I have witnessed them all struggle with drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty, homelessness, and the inability to get/keep a job, among other challenges. Being a child born into this, I have had to suffer because of someone else’s inability to properly provide for me. Growing up and always having to struggle for the simplest of needs made me determined to end the cycle of poverty with me. The best way I can do that: get an education. I want to be able to provide not only for myself but my future family, as well as help my family who is struggling and even those outside my family. In order to gain a platform and ability to accomplish such a feat, I have to start somewhere: college.

That student always snacking might not be getting enough to eat. That quiet student who never talks might be going through depression. That student who is overly outgoing and trying to be pleasing might be compensating for an abusive and degrading parental relationship. If something seems off, then it probably is.

Can you give examples of how educators helped you while you were experiencing homelessness?

For the larger part of the four years that I spent in high school, with the exception of my very first semester, I, along with my family, was homeless. My school, however, was not aware of my homelessness status until the last three months or so of my high school career–when they learned that I was awarded the SchoolHouse Connection Scholarship. In those last three months, I was contacted by my district’s homeless liaison. There was only so much she could do since I was graduating soon, but she waived my library fees for textbooks that had been stolen and reached out to my younger siblings’ districts to provide them with McKinney-Vento status. My school worked hard to help me to be able to enjoy all of the senior activities I never would have been able to do on my own: paying for my prom and connecting with a program to get a free dress, senior excursion, grad night, and my yearbook. Every year, my school has a renaissance rally in which they award students for academic success and help boost morale. After the faculty became aware of my situation, they awarded me in front of the entire student body with the award for the most inspirational student. Although my school was unaware of the struggles I was facing for a very long time, once they became aware they did everything in their power to help.

What do you wish teachers or other people at school had done to help you while you were experiencing homelessness?

Most people, in general, do not understand when or how to recognize homelessness. Most homeless children and students are ashamed of their struggles or are told that they cannot talk about it, so they hide it well. I made sure that my shoes and clothes always appeared clean, even if I had to hand wash them in the hotel bathtub. Classroom rules like “no eating” make it hard for students whose only opportunity to eat is on campus. I was always eating on campus. My friends would buy me snacks and I would just eat all day because I was not sure if I would have a meal once I left. Most importantly, though, I think it is immensely important to notice the little things. That student always snacking might not be getting enough to eat. That quiet student who never talks might be going through depression. That student who is overly outgoing and trying to be pleasing might be compensating for an abusive and degrading parental relationship. If something seems off, then it probably is.

What is one thing you know now that you wish you had known when you were experiencing homelessness?

One thing I wish I had known when experiencing homelessness is that help existed. I had no idea what Mckinney-Vento was. I had never even heard of a homeless liaison. I felt so alone. This was in large part because I was forbidden from talking about it by my family. But if I had known about the McKinney-Vento program it would have made a lot of things so much easier for me earlier on. I would not have had to spend four years struggling alone.

What has been the most exciting part about transitioning to college? What has been the most daunting?

The most exciting thing about transitioning into college is having a bed to call my own. Knowing that every night I would come home and it would be there. I would not have to pack every week and try to find a place to stay–because I had a place to stay. I had my own place away from my toxic family and the horrible memories that taint my hometown. I had the opportunity to start fresh. The most daunting thing about college has been the expenses and trying to make friends. I could not afford to live on campus, so I stay off campus an hour bus ride away. This commute makes it hard for me to form bonds with people since they all live on campus and I do not.

One thing I wish I had known when experiencing homelessness is that help existed. I had no idea what Mckinney-Vento was. I had never even heard of a homeless liaison. I felt so alone. This was in large part because I was forbidden from talking about it by my family. But if I had known about the McKinney-Vento program it would have made a lot of things so much easier for me earlier on. I would not have had to spend four years struggling alone.

Can you talk a little about what receiving this scholarship has meant to you/your experiences being a part of the SHC family?

Receiving this scholarship has quite literally changed my life. Yes, it helped to receive the funds, but it goes beyond that. Receiving this scholarship was how my school became aware of my homelessness and began to aid me in any way they could. When my college admission was rescinded because I could not afford to pay for the housing deposit, SchoolHouse Connection stepped in and helped me get reinstated. When I was being stonewalled by the Office of Housing Administration regarding my request to be exempted from the on campus living requirement, SchoolHouse Connection called with me and we received an answer within minutes. When I was struggling with my physical health and could not afford my medical bills, SchoolHouse Connection reimbursed me. Not only this, but the bonds, formed not only with the other scholars but with the staff and peer leaders, are bonds that I am confident I will have for the rest of my life. SchoolHouse Connection has quite literally become a family for me and I am forever grateful that I was selected.

What would you like to say to other students currently experiencing homelessness? And, what words of wisdom do you have for other students who want to advocate for themselves and their peers?

To anyone else experiencing homelessness, I would want to say that you are valid and you will get through this. I know how embarrassing it can be. I was so unwilling to even say that I was homeless because I did not think that I was the right kind of homeless. There is so much stigma around homelessness, but never ever let anyone tell you are not homeless, or not deserving of help. Never let anyone discourage you or put you down. But most importantly, never give up. You will overcome it all. 

To students who want to advocate for themselves and their peers, I would say: do not be afraid to speak up. Do it anonymously. Do it only in your state. Do it only in your town. Only your first name. Only a picture. Do it however you feel comfortable doing it, but do it. Never stop telling your story. No matter how uncomfortable it makes people or how hard it is to keep recalling those memories. Your words, your testimony, could be what changes policy, what gets the help you never had to those who need it, what makes life better for someone else. If you can help even in the smallest way, do it.

I Was a Homeless Student and School Helped Me Find My Way Home

By Jamie Warren, SHC Young Leader, graduating senior at Wayland Baptist University and teaching assistant at Shallowater Elementary in Shallowater, Texas. 

This story originally appeared on Education Post.

I first experienced homelessness with my family, then on my own. I was born to a single mother and a father who was absent because of post-traumatic stress disorder he developed after the war. Throughout my childhood, my mother, two sisters and I moved from home to home, sometimes not having one at all.

I changed schools so often that my teachers couldn’t test me and begin instruction before I left again. I rarely made friends because I never had enough time to get to know them. When I was 16, my mother finally settled with a man who had no desire to be a father. I became an unaccompanied youth—a minor who is homeless without a “present” guardian—and had to support myself financially.

Working a full-time job and trying to function as a “normal” student sometimes felt impossible. I often fell asleep in my first period class, causing my teachers—unaware of my situation—much frustration. On multiple occasions, they reprimanded me in front of my classmates for being “irresponsible.”

That changed when I broke my arm as a junior in high school. Since I was a minor, I couldn’t sign for my own medical care, and I spent six weeks in a splint that the ER doctor only intended for me to wear for a week before it was casted. In the end, it exposed my secret to my teachers—and then everything changed for me.

A Place I Felt Supported

Despite all the problems homelessness caused for me at school, it was still a place I could feel supported.

More than other adults in my life, teachers presented me with a reason to smile or an opportunity to be something more. I remember crying in my teacher’s office because school and a full-time job were too much to handle, and graduation seemed like a fantasy.

According to a recent report, Hidden in Plain Sight, students experiencing homelessness are 87 percent more likely to drop out. This exacerbates the existing issue, as a lack of a high school diploma or GED is the top risk factor for young adult homelessness, making them 4.5 times more likely to experience it.

But to my teacher Mrs. Roberts, that was not an option.

Life is not easy, she taught me, but the only way to make it easier is to have an education. She spent day after day building my confidence and guiding me to a successful path. She also introduced me to a woman who became a mentor and guided me in the ways that she could not.

As Center for Promise research shows, sometimes the most important thing an adult can do for young people is to introduce them to other caring adults, which together form a broader web of support.

Ultimately, Mrs. Roberts showed me that it was indeed possible to change my future in a constructive way. I did not have to fall into the same pattern as my family.

People often ask me, “Why are you going to school to teach—don’t you know you could make so much more money in a different field?”

My response to that question is pretty simple: Education has the power to change one’s entire life. Education is a major reason for my success, and one day I will change a student’s life with education.

This is why the new Education Leads Home campaign, the only national campaign of its kind focused solely on meeting the educational needs of homeless students, is so critical to helping students get on the other side of homelessness. Homelessness is more than just a housing problem, and addressing it requires different services coming together.

Housing agencies, health and mental health care, child care and employment training and opportunities and legal services can work together with and through the public school system to create stability and supports.

But before we can help more agencies fight this problem, more people have to be aware of it.

Homeless Youth Exist “In Every State and Every District”

When asked what schools can do to better identify and track homeless students, my answer is simple: awareness. Homeless students and unaccompanied youth exist in every state and every district. Nationwide, there are currently 1.3 million homeless students and many more who are unseen and unheard.

There is hope that more people will become aware with the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

This year marks the first time that all states are required to track graduation rates for homeless students to meet ESSA standards. Stronger protections are in place to identify these students and to meet their unique needs. Similar policies are newly in place in early care and education programs, as well as higher education.

However, the work cannot stop there. Educators need practical support, evidence-based practices and technical assistance to implement these policies and make sure they benefit children and youth.

Furthermore, teachers are not the only adults who have a part to play. As a society, we must all help remove the stigma and fear that prevent homeless students from turning to adults for help. If students are never identified as homeless, they remain hidden within the school system with little, if any, access to the resources and support they need.

Teachers and schools are often the home that many homeless students rely on. They saved my life. It’s time to take a closer look at the gaps in our system so we can provide more homeless students with the support they need to reach their full potential.