‘I had a million reasons to give up, but I chose not to.’: Homeless valedictorian shares journey of poverty and perseverance

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November 1, 2001: Age 6.

The morning alarm went off, and it was time to get ready for school. My dad was already cooking breakfast when my eyes slowly opened. I peeked over to my older brother, Sean, who stretched his arms wide and yawned.

After our typical morning routine, we had to end with our main tradition: hugs and kisses with mom. My mother was five months pregnant with me when doctors diagnosed her with chronic myelogenous leukemia in December 1995. The 30 different medications took a toll on her body, and she wasn’t feeling well that morning. Aren’t those supposed to help? I thought, hopeful. After we left for school, we had no idea that those would be our last hugs and kisses from the person that brought us into this world.

mom smiling and sitting in a chair
Courtesy of Griffin Furlong

After my mom’s funeral, Sean and I shared a moment that I’ll never forget. We sat on the floor of our bedroom, tears in our eyes, hoping all of it was just a dream. We hoped we would wake up, and she would be there. But unfortunately, we learned that life didn’t work that way. After we couldn’t produce another tear, we looked each other in the eyes and made a pact to never give up on each other, no matter the obstacles ahead. Sunshine lit the room, and that’s when I knew she was there watching over us.

brothers in the pool playing together
Courtesy of Griffin Furlong

Time passed, and I could start to feel that life was changing. There was a conflict between my father and maternal grandparents, which caused me to worry about who I would be living with. My family never owned a house, only rented, so we didn’t have equity. The only equity was in our retirement accounts. Between medical bills and attorney fees, our accounts were slowly depleting.

2003 – 2007: Ages 7 to 10

For a while, we hung on. We stayed at my childhood home until March 2003, when we moved to an apartment complex a few blocks away, meaning we could stay in the same school. My dad also signed my brother and me up for Little League. He thought it would be good to keep us busy. It became a passion of mine, and I would play every year after that.

two little boys posing for a picture
Courtesy of Griffin Furlong

One day on the way to practice, our van died right in the middle of an intersection. My dad couldn’t afford the repairs or another car, so we were stuck for years having to get around mostly on foot or by bus or sometimes by asking for rides from friends and family.

It was a four-mile round trip to the grocery store and back if you walked along the railroad tracks. Taking surface streets took a half-hour longer each way. When cars passed me on the street, I was nervous my friends or peers from school would see me. And many did because they brought it up at school. It was so embarrassing and made me never want to walk anywhere.

I wasn’t perfect; many times I turned down my dad. But he kept pushing. He didn’t give up. The inevitable was that to survive, we needed food. To get food, we had limited options, which included walking miles.

We lived at the apartment for about a year then we moved into a duplex. Around that time my dad left the auto dealership because he wanted to be able to be a stay-at-home parent to his two young, grieving children. So he filed for Social Security survivor benefits for Sean and me and also filed for unemployment.

But then one day, an eviction notice stuck out like a sore thumb on the front door of our rental duplex. My dad’s desire to be home for us, while well-intentioned, started us on the path to homelessness once his unemployment benefits ran out.

We had a week to move out, so we stored some of our belongings and everything else went to my maternal grandmother. The last day we moved our final belongings, it was time to leave my fifty-square-foot attic of a bedroom. My dad, brother, and I began walking, again along the train tracks. We ended up at a picnic bench in a local park. By then it was dark. I looked up to the stars, silently crying for help, hoping someone was listening. Luckily we were picked up by a friend, or my night would have been spent sleeping on the park bench.

brothers at a table doing bunny ears
Courtesy of Griffin Furlong

The obstacles came one after another. We bounced around more friends’ couches, but we over-extended our stay. We ended up in a hotel with money we panhandled. I remember what it was like to feel hungry that first night in the hotel, but this was a different type of hunger—this was pain. We had spent a considerable amount of the day walking, and not for a workout or a family hiking trip—this was a search for shelter. We had been turned away by churches, schools, and businesses. All we wanted was a place to sleep. I fought through the night, dreaming about the free hotel breakfast.

Hotel stays cost money, and eventually, we ran out after a few nights. With the few dollars we did have left, my dad called a taxi. ‘Where are we going?’ My brother and I asked our dad. Silence filled the cab.

It turned out to be the Wayside Christian Mission, a homeless shelter in the heart of downtown Louisville, Kentucky. (Ironically, the building now houses a five-star restaurant.) The first day, there I was, greeted by two bunk beds in a two-hundred-square-foot room. In the back right corner was a shared bathroom with no mirror. I remember how the worn wooden floors creaked with every step. The mattresses were made of hard, bright-green plastic, and that initial night my family didn’t have sheets.

the homeless shelter where boy lived
Courtesy of Griffin Furlong

There was already a family occupying the right bunk bed, which meant me, my dad, and my brother had the left bunk. I was nervous about my future, embarrassed by my butchered haircut and not having many clothes, and anxious at the thought of kids at school finding out where we were living. Keeping my situation a secret at school would be very stressful. But more than anything, I was thankful because I still had my family by my side, a roof over my head, and food from the soup kitchen so we wouldn’t go hungry.

A few months into our stay at Wayside, my dad signed me up to play Little League baseball late in the season. My team was winless with a 0–6 record. The shelter provided me with an old, thirteen-inch softball glove. It had a huge pouch of a web, which made sense—if I was playing softball. To play middle infield, it was about four inches larger than it needed to be. I was also provided a used pair of cleats and pants that were a size too big. Lastly, I found a dusty, old cap in the bin.

I remember my dad looking at me and saying, ‘Well, it ain’t gonna be the equipment that plays good ball.’ And I couldn’t argue because he was right; I was going to have to make it work. Before practice, I got a sharpie at the shelter’s front desk and wrote ‘Never Give Up’ under the bill of the cap.

After I joined the team, we won twelve straight games and went on to play in the championship game. The other coaches in the league selected me as an all-star, with the first overall pick. And during that entire season, only one teammate knew I was homeless.

The power of those three little words on my cap.

boy who wrote never give up in his baseball cap
Courtesy of Griffin Furlong

For my fifth-grade graduation, no school buses were operating that day, so my dad and I had looked up the metro bus schedule and mapped out the best route to get to the school. The next morning we got up at 6:00 a.m. sharp, got dressed, then began our thirty-minute walk to the bus stop. We took two buses then had a half-hour walk to the graduation—in the hot June summer. My friends and peers passed us by in their cars.

When I got to graduation, I received many odd looks. My dad and I were sweaty, and I was underdressed. Everyone was clean cut with nice business casual clothes, while I wore a long-sleeve cotton polo shirt one size too big, jeans, and tennis shoes. I remember feeling embarrassed, with lumps in my chest. I didn’t want to show my face. I had never felt like more of an outcast and asked my dad why we even came. I think they just saw me as different, or at least that’s how they made me feel.

little boy playing in the park
Courtesy of Griffin Furlong

If you ask me, homelessness is a never-ending cycle of uncertainty. When you’re homeless, it’s difficult to measure progress because progress doesn’t ever seem to happen. Every night in the homeless shelter I thought: When will we ever get out of here? Does anyone even care? I had to rely on my dreams to escape the reality I was living. Just when we thought we saved enough money, it had to be spent. Just when we thought my dad landed a job, there was no more job. Just when we thought we were taking a step forward, it was two steps back.

If you ask some other people, the solution to homelessness is easy. Just get a job or do this. According to some, people on food stamps were lazy and stealing from the government. Everything is so easy; you just press a button and a good-paying job and a house you can afford magically appear. I listened to these opinions about the homeless and held my tongue. Many were unaware that I was and it brought out the ugly truth of their perspective. This was what they truly thought of me.

If only they knew…

Fast forward to middle school and high school.

Instead of being bitter, I used my situation to build my perspective and mindset. I carried this mindset with me when we moved to Florida when I was ten years old and left the past back in Louisville.

I slammed the restart button of my life. My perspective was that life was an opportunity. I learned to appreciate the value of the things I owned and discovered that my output was based on my input. I was curious about anything and everything, so I set seemingly impossible goals in middle school: get all A’s every year, never have homework, and never miss a day of school.

teen boy holding his books by a wall
Courtesy of Griffin Furlong

I remember getting all A’s for the first time in my first semester of middle school and it sparked a large sense of confidence. It was the light I needed to help me guide through the deep, dark tunnel I was navigating. The A’s continued to come, every semester, every year, up to my senior year of high school.

But just when I thought everything was getting better, tragedy struck again. A few months before high school graduation, my family and I went homeless again. Memories of the past flashed in my head, and the stress of finishing school strongly posed a challenge. Not to mention, I was studying for 5 AP tests and writing college application essays. I ended up staying with my girlfriend’s family for a few weeks until I moved in with my Aunt and Uncle.

A few days later, my guidance counselor called me on the intercom during second-period class and requested I come to her office. I didn’t know what to expect. When I showed up, she got super excited and said: ‘You’re the man!’ I was confused. She said, ‘You’re valedictorian of your class! Congratulations, Griffin.’

teen boy posing by the ocean
Courtesy of Griffin Furlong

I want my story to be a testament that you can do anything you put your mind to. According to the odds, I wasn’t supposed to graduate high school, and especially not valedictorian. I wasn’t supposed to go to college, or graduate magna cum laude, either. I had a lack of resources and a million reasons to give up, but I chose not to because of my mindset, perspective, and perseverance. I drank from a glass-half-full, and even when failure, hardship, and death sprawled in my life, my mindset never changed. In fact, it only became stronger. I began realizing that those moments were opportunities for growth, and the only thing I could control was if I wanted to grow from it or give up.

I also want people to take a step back and realize the positives in their lives. I observed the classroom, the baseball fields, and other families for many years. I often noticed a lack of appreciation for things, such as their new computers, internet, a big bed, their own room, new phone, new car, food on the table every night, and both parents. The complaints and the lack of appreciation were difficult to digest because I dreamed of having those things. But count your positives and be humble with what you have because everything can disappear in a flash, just like what happened with me.”

teen boys graduation
Courtesy of Griffin Furlong
teen boys graduation from middle school
Courtesy of Griffin Furlong
teen boys quote in the year book
Courtesy of Griffin Furlong
teen boy as valedictorian
Courtesy of Griffin Furlong

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Griffin Furlong from Tampa, FL. You can follow his journey on  Facebook and Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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