When Mark walked into his first class at Seattle Central Community College, he was still homeless and convinced he didn’t belong. “I didn’t think I could succeed,” he told us. “I didn’t think school was a place for me. I thought, ‘I’m homeless, and I’m a drunk, and I’m feeling like crap about myself.’ [The other students] have their lives together, and they’re going to go have coffee after class and talk about logic, and it’s going to be all good. I’m going to go home to a shelter. I was very scared.”

The most obvious barriers to homeless youth succeeding in school are logistical: accessing financial aid, finding a place to study, getting enough sleep. They can seem nearly insurmountable, and part of YouthCare’s job is to help young people deal with and overcome them.

But the profound isolation and despair of homelessness present the most formidable roadblocks. Young men and women like Mark have been told over and over again that they are not worthy, not capable. They’ve come to believe that this society has no place for them. The real work of YouthCare is helping each one of them work through the trauma – and learn to trust, not just others, but themselves.

Mark looked to the staff at our James W. Ray Orion Center for support … and he received it, every step of the way. He got it from Johnny, his chemical dependency counselor. He got it from Abby, his case manager. Only two of the many YouthCare staff who helped him along his path from the moment he walked through our door.

“It was always the incremental things for me,” Mark says of his journey out of despair and isolation. “I needed to start here. I needed support. I needed to ask whether or not I could succeed. And they were telling me I could do it. And I would try to do it … and then I’d figure out, ‘Oh, I can do it.’”

Months after that first, terrifying class, Mark finished his first quarter with a 3.3 GPA – and the realization that he did belong. As he continued, he discovered that he was good at math. It was a gradual discovery, but teacher after teacher noticed his aptitude and encouraged him.

Meanwhile, with Johnny’s help, he got into a treatment program and worked on sobriety. He threw himself into activities at school: service learning projects, Honor Society activities, and helping establish Info Central, a resource guide for new students.

Years later, Mark was called to reflect on his journey from a different perspective. In recognition of academic performance and dedication to the Seattle Central community, he was asked to give the commencement speech. “It was incredibly validating. I started out doing fractions in a developmental math class, and I got to be a really important person on campus. More importantly, I got to be myself – and it was well received.”

Mark’s been stably housed for a while, now, after spending four out of his five years in school without that basic thing. He’s since regained custody of his son. His next step along the path he’s laying will be to earn his bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington. He starts in September and plans to study math.

During his darkest times, Mark could scarcely dream of achieving so much. As with every young person who rises above the seeming fate of homelessness, the achievement is all his – but Mark speaks, instead, of his gratitude.

“To be able to be a parent, to be able to be a student, all these things … it’s indescribably great. I’m grateful that I get to learn how to grow as a person. I have a profound amount of gratitude for the Orion Center, and other services, and this community. I have a profound gratitude for life.”