[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/07/03/dash.graduation.art.jpg caption="Dasheen's dark past motivates him to strive for his dreams."]
From CNN Producer Ben Tinker
Dasheen Ellis’ mother abandoned him, along with his brother, before he was old enough to form a memory of her.
“She left us on one of her friend’s steps and never came back,” he recounts. Dasheen was just five years old, his brother eight. “She was a drug addict and she had sex for drugs. She was always high and experimenting with different drugs. It was not a positive environment for us. I mean, me and my brother would have to just sometimes be in the house alone. He was the one protecting me. She was never there.”
Dasheen was sent to live with his godmother, which turned into another bad situation. “The environment wasn’t a positive thing for me,” he says. “There was a lot of drugs and sex and things around me that were uncomfortable, so I decided to tell my social worker that I wanted to leave.”
From there, he was placed into his first foster home; then, into the care of the Jewish Child Care Association. Andrea Fink, his former social worker, knows all that it took for Dasheen to get here.
“The Dasheen that you see today is pretty much the Dasheen you saw when he was 13,” she remembers. “He came in quiet, peaceful, very self-assured. But underneath it, very, very scared and worried about what was going to be his future.”
Dasheen recently returned to the Pleasantville Cottage School to offer the current residents something few others can: empathy.
“I wanted to come and talk to you guys about my experiences in life,” he tells them, “because most of them have been kind of similar to what you guys have gone through.”
Talking, Fink says, is the most important thing an at-risk youth can do. “Talk about your feelings. Find somebody who you trust and talk it out, not matter how difficult it is.”
When he was a resident, Dasheen played an integral role in crafting a unique peer mentoring program. “I figured it would be best for residents to help other residents,” he explains,” because you can relate more to someone who’s your peer rather than someone who’s above you.”
Furthermore, he tells them, “You can’t follow someone if there’s no one leading.” He encourages each and every child to step up and take charge of their own destiny, then adds: “In order for you to lead, you have to live by your word. You can’t say something and not do it.”
Living a structured existence is another integral part of the residential treatment program, equally as crucial to the success of a lost child. “Most of the children who come into this program didn’t have that kind of reliability, that kind of structure that they needed,” says Fink, “which led them to dangerous and unsafe decisions that they were making in their lives or their parents were making for them. So giving them that kind of predictability is therapeutic.”
Dasheen agrees it’s a good foundation to build before entering the real world. Otherwise, he asserts, “You have so much freedom and you don’t know what to do. And then you probably would most likely just end up getting in trouble again.”
But this is now a young man who knows what he wants. He’s a man on a mission. “I told myself when I was younger that I wanted to go to college,” he tells the kids. “I set my goal and every year, every day, I just did things that would help me reach that goal.”
“One of the first things he said throughout his stay here was that ‘My legs are going to be my future,’” Fink recalls. “Meaning, ‘I’m going to run track and I’m going to get a scholarship.’ And it was really prophetic, because that’s exactly what he did.”
On the track, Dasheen quickly earned himself the nickname ‘Dash.’
“Sports,” Dasheen explains, “Well, track in general, is a way for me to express myself and take out… It’s my anger management. When I would go to track practice and we’d have a hard day, I would just think about some things that happened to me when I was younger and it would get me through the workouts. When I think about the things that have happened, it’s a fuel. It fuels me.”
In a twist of fate almost too storybook to be believed, Dasheen’s high school track coach, Gene Dall, petitioned to become his new foster father.
“He was just a squirrelly, little skinny kid. You know, a typical freshman. Didn’t know his own name,” Dall muses.
Before they were legally able to adopt Dasheen, Gene and his wife Lonnie had to take courses in being a foster parent.
“They tell you about these poor kids. I mean, I literally just don’t know what to do about it,” Lonnie says as she begins to cry. “I wish there was something I could do about it because, to think of the things these children have gone through, though no fault of their own. I just keep thinking of Dasheen and I thought, ‘He’s not like that. He’s not that way.’”
“They’re very surprised when they actually find out he’s a foster child,” Gene says, “because he’s probably better adjusted than 75% of kids who really have supporting families.”
“Who have the mom and dad at home!” adds Lonnie.
Now Dasheen has the mom and dad he always wanted, but he won’t be home for long.
“I’m going to SUNY Cortland,” he says with a smile. “I’m going to study education.”
The State University of New York will be covering Dasheen’s tuition, through its Educational Opportunity Program. The New York State Department of Social Services will cover his room and board, as well as offer some additional funds to cover miscellaneous school-related expenses.
As he heard his name read aloud and approached podium to receive his diploma, Dasheen thought, “It feels so good. I feel accomplished. I reached a mountain peak in my life, so I’m really happy about that.”