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William Strickland was in and out of multiple foster homes until he met a couple who changed his life.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
William Fleming student William Strickland shares a moment with teacher Ginger Eure during graduation rehearsal at the Roanoke Civic Center on Thursday.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
William Fleming student William Strickland will attend George Mason University this fall.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Roanoke student William Strickland is a writer. A teacher describes him as poetic.
He is also an athlete. For years he has run cross country and indoor track.
And he’s a child of foster care, who faced challenges and often turmoil as he grew up.
Today, though, he is simply a graduate.
Strickland, who will attend George Mason University in the fall, is among the approximately 300 William Fleming High School students who will graduate today at the Roanoke Civic Center. Students from the city’s other high school, Patrick Henry, are graduating today as well.
Before he entered foster care when he was 13 years old, Strickland said he moved around frequently. He was evicted from one home and missed so much school he was held back as a second-grader.
He described his father as abusive and said his mother struggled with depression; both are no longer active in his life. During his teen years Strickland said he spent time in five different homes and attended five middle schools.
Then almost six years ago, he said, he found hope and opportunity in the home of his current foster mother, Carolyn Johnson, who proudly calls him “my baby.” Since then his grades have picked up, he’s become an athlete and boasts a list of academic achievements.
“One of the things that empowers me is I’ve seen so many lifeless faces,” Strickland said, adding he didn’t want to be one.
He said he wants a future and shared his story so anyone facing similar circumstances could have what he has.
“It’s within them,” he said. “The only limits they have, they set themselves.”
Studies show foster care children struggle more often in school compared with their peers.
According to information from Casey Family Programs, a group that focuses on improving the child welfare system, foster care students experience frequent school changes, which can set them behind. Children who grow up in foster care take longer to graduate and have a lower graduation rate than their peers, according to the organization.
Some studies estimate that 50 percent of foster kids don’t graduate from high school.
But for Strickland, he said once he landed with the Johnsons they gave him stability and freedom to be independent. He did better in school and joined the cross country team, which he said gave him confidence and a best friend, who supported him.
“Having self-confidence really did help,” he said.
He said graduation and college were never a question.
“I guess I never looked at it as a goal but told myself it was something I had to do,” he said.
Strickland’s friend Samantha Anderson, who sat by his side during a recent interview, called him determined.
“The fact that it’s so broken up affected his foundation,” she said of his childhood and the instability, “but he still built something.”
Anderson, who also graduates today, said Strickland believes that even if people are put in a bad situation, they can go just as far and do just as much as anyone else. She said he also wants to outdo people.
He reluctantly agreed.
Strickland’s principal and English teacher said he is a motivated student. Such determination and drive were on display earlier this spring when he was initially wait-listed at GMU, but wrote letters appealing to the school. He later got in.
Ginger Eure, who taught him for Advanced Placement government and English literature this year, said she knows Strickland best through his writing.
“He has the soul of poet,” she said.
Eure explained she teaches a workshop to help students with their college essays. She asks students to write from the heart and to use examples, which Strickland did.
“I remember his,” she said. “It was very honest. His writing voice was very strong.”
Strickland told his story and the difficult events that shaped his life.
“This is no ordinary life. I knew I was different; might there have been something more bountiful to life than what was handed down to me,” he wrote.
He continued describing how as a young child he suppressed emotions to keep from being vulnerable at the hands of others.
“In a way, I lived without a purpose,” he wrote.
He closed by writing that eventually the wall he built around himself tumbled down “because of my joy, laughter, and love.”
Strickland said during a recent interview that much of what changed his outlook was when he ended up in the Johnson house.
“She’s like a mother,” he said of Johnson.
Johnson said Strickland came to her and her husband in July 2008. She said his good character was already instilled. She credited his grandmother, whom Strickland briefly lived with when he was younger, before she died.
“William is just a caring person,” she said.
Johnson recalled thoughtful Christmas gifts he gave her and kind words and most recently a Mother’s Day gift of jewelry, a thoughtful card and a coconut cake.
“He deserves so much,” she said. “He deserves everything and more.”
Johnson said the two always had a connection, but in the past year it was especially important as Strickland provided support for her after her husband, Harrison Johnson, died. The first anniversary of his death was this week.
“When he graduates from school Friday, I know that it’s going to be full of sunshine because my husband will be there in spirit,” she said. “We didn’t birth William, but we love him as our own.”
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