Everybody at Charles R. Drew High School in Clayton County knew valedictorian Chelesa Fearce was a superstar: an astounding 4.5 GPA, a class-high 1900 on the SAT and a career aspiration as a cancer-fighting doctor.
Few knew she was homeless.
“I wasn’t embarrassed [about being homeless],” Chelesa said. “It makes you humble. It makes you want to be a better person.”
And so on Thursday, addressing the student body, parents and faculty as the Class of 2013 valedictorian, Chelesa felt the time was right to reveal her greatest secret: she’d been homeless through most of her years in high school.
“My family slept on mats on the floor and we were lucky if we got more than one full meal a day,” she told the graduation audience at the Georgia Dome. “Most kids were worried about grades alone. I had the added burden of wondering whether or not I would have a shower, food or clean clothes to wear … ”
Chelesa, her mother, two sisters and brother weren’t literally on the streets. But on and off for years, they all crammed into one room at extended stay motels in Clayton and Fulton County, bunked amid strangers in crowded homeless shelters and on occasion slept in the car, when they had one.
Chelesa (pronounced Cha-LEE-sa) would stay up late, reading and studying and hoping to defy the odds often linked to poverty and homelessness. At times, not to disturb the family, she read in a shadow cast by the small motel stove light.
“This will not be like this forever,” she recalls telling herself on challenging days. “It’s about tomorrow.”
This fall, Chelesa will enroll as a junior at Atlanta’s Spelman College. She’ll be there on scholarships, including the Zell Miller’s HOPE for high-achieving students.
She will be majoring in chemistry and philosophy and striving “to be well-rounded.” She is able to leapfrog over her peers into her junior year because twice a week during her last two years at Drew, she walked a mile and hopped two buses to get to Clayton State University, where she was dually enrolled and earning college credits.
Her objective is to become a doctor specializing in oncology, a field that has interested her since her mother, Reenita Shepherd, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2005.
Her illness launched the family into eight years of on-again off-again homelessness. Shepherd, who had been a Head Start teacher, took on a series of short-term and mostly part-time jobs, supplemented by babysitting on the side.
Chelesa, a spitfire teen with a quick wit and a penchant for poetry, music and reality TV, hardly fits a homeless profile. But the face of homelessness has changed over the last decade as the fortunes of millions plummeted with the recession.
Shepherd, who turns 37 on Sunday, was thrown by the cancer diagnosis.
“I was going through a lot. I went to chemo. That’s when we lost everything and became homeless,” said Shepherd, who left Mississippi, and Chelesa’s father, for Atlanta and hopes for a better life.
Chelesa had to forgo extracurricular activities like marching band and swimming without reliable transportation. She and the family received help from the school system’s Homeless Education office, which estimates 2,000 students in the district can be defined as homeless. The office provided her with rides to school, the cost of college textbooks and even prom dresses for Chelesa and her older sister Chelsea.
Sonia Davis, who runs the office, gives much of the credit to Shepherd.
“She made education a priority for all her children,” Davis said. “And she was an involved parent and both of those are key.”
Chelesa’s story is “going to be an inspiration to a lot of children who are homeless that we have not identified,” Davis said.
Chelesa embraced schooling early on, as did her siblings. All four of Shepherd’s children were reading by age 3. Nothing has come between Chelesa and her books, not even the chaos of the homeless shelters.
“Everybody has children. They are talking, crying, having fits,” Chelesa recalled of her times in the shelters. “I tried to study but I had to try to block everybody out.”
And that included her mother, who would tell her it was time to sleep.
“I would say ‘No, I need to study,’” she said.
Drew High literature teachers Vijay Oommen and Kidada Brown said they had no idea of Chelesa’s living conditions while she was in their classes. She left an impression though, one of a personable, hard-working student who was passionate about learning.
Teachers, Oommen said, compare students to clay that needs to be molded. In Chelesa’s case, he said, he found a “finished product and all you have to do is polish it from time to time.”
“(Chelesa) turned all her adversities into triumphs,” Brown said.
The 17-year-old says the broad characterization of homeless people as lazy is unfair.
“Often, it was just a card that was dealt to us,” she wrote in one of her scholarship applications. “I do not have a stable home, but I have a plan. That plan starts with a college education and when I receive that, I know I will be on my way to making a positive impact on the world.”
Just how important education is to this family, which since February has lived in a $400-a-month house in Forest Park, was never more apparent than this week as they celebrated three graduations.
Youngest son Nicholas, 5, graduated pre-kindergarten. Chelesa gave an uplifting speech to Drew High’s graduates, telling classmates: “Our bravery forces others to follow as we lead.”
And at Carver High School in Atlanta Public Schools, older sister Chelsea was among the graduates of the Class 0f 2013. She and Chelesa went to separate schools to avoid comparisons.
And success came to both. Chelsea, 18, was Carver’s salutatorian, with a 3.7 grade point average and expects to attend the University of West Georgia on scholarship this fall.
Charles Drew High School valedictorian Chelesa Fearce’s tips
Study an hour each day. Don’t cram. People like to cram. I say if you do an hour each day in studying for a test, it will pay off. That’s what I did for chemistry like a week before the exam.
Use online exams and old tests the teacher hands back to you.
Go to class.
Read the books before you go to class to understand the information. Take notes.
This will not be like this forever. It’s about tomorrow. Don’t worry about today. It will be brighter tomorrow.
Make sure you pray.
Succeeding in life:
Don’t give in to peer pressure. Don’t try to do what you see on TV. They’re always trying to be cool and keep up with other people. Don’t worry about that. Do what you need to do to get ahead in life.