I attended a powerful ceremony last Tuesday night in honor of the first three graduates of My Sister's Circle, a program that pairs Baltimore girls leaving elementary school with mentors to see them through their middle and high school years. As you'll see in my story today, the graduates -- Shaniqua Warfield, Antoinella Peterkin and Rickell Sheppard Briggs -- overcame incredible obstacles to finish high school, and now they're all off to college.
For Shaniqua and Rickell, beating the odds involved getting scholarships to boarding school. And Rickell was adopted by the parents of Heather Harvison, founder and executive director of My Sister's Circle. Harvison started the program at the request of Irma Johnson, former principal of Dallas Nicholas Elementary (now the city school system's executive director of elementary schools), who was tired of seeing her female students get pregnant and drop out after they left her at the end of fifth-grade.
I went to Tuesday's ceremony after a day reporting on the uproar over the new middle/high school coming to the Canton Middle School building, a controversy that is, at its core, about some residents' belief that the behavior of a group of students will never change. So it was particularly inspiring that night to meet girls who were not dealt a fair hand in life, but turned themselves around as a result of adults believing in them.
It seemed like everyone in the audience around me was tearing up as Shaniqua, Antoinella and Rickell spoke about their journeys through childhood and adolescence. (I admit I was no exception.) Rickell, who is graduating from Garrison Forest School and will attend college at University of Baltimore, has given me permission to publish her speech (as she typed it before the event) below. The photo above shows her with Harvison as she left the podium.
I was born in my home on Guilford Avenue in Baltimore. The Paramedics came and delivered me in the house. Then, I lived with my mother, maternal grandmother, and two brothers. At some point in my infancy, I moved into my paternal grandmother’s home. I had little interaction with my father while living there. When I was three years old, I moved to New York with my Aunt Mary and Uncle “Flintstone”. What I remember most about my aunt and uncle’s house is eating popcorn and watching the Price Is Right. I merely existed. I then returned to Baltimore to began school and my name was recorded as Rickell Briggs (my father’s name) although, legally, I am Rickell Sheppard. I went to McCormick Elementary School at four years old. During that time, I was living with my paternal grandmother again. She took care of me financially as well as my two brothers and cousins. Finances were tight. I think she worked outside of the home but I do not recall what she did. I would see my birth father periodically but I had no relation or connection to him.
My mother was battling a heroin addiction and was frequently incarcerated. When my mother got out of jail, I was seven. We moved in with her and my grandmother. My mother had baby girl named Jazzmyn. I then lived with my mother and two brothers and attended my zone school, Dallas Nicholas Elementary School. When I turned nine years old, my mother finally received Section 8 housing, after being on a waiting list for two years. Jazzmyn lived with us for a few months and then her father was granted full custody. When my mother got arrested again, my aunt Maxine moved in with us. Basically, no one was providing anything. Some nights, I’d go to my grandmother’s house for dinner but usually I ate at school (Title One – free breakfast and lunch). My brothers dropped out of school and they moved with our father. It was just me and mother living without any gas and electric. After school, I would stay outside. I only went home to sleep. Soon, we found an eviction notice on our door.
I did not realize it then but my life was about to change in a way I never imagined. When I was in fifth grade at DN Mrs. Johnson sent me home one day. It may come as a surprise to you that I was a little scrappy and got into trouble sometimes. So there I was when I heard Mrs. Johnson calling Rickell, why aren’t you in school? “Because you sent me home!” I will never forget what she said: “Well, I changed my mind. Come down here.” Mrs. Johnson took me back to school because she had chosen me for a brand new pilot program called My Sisters Circle. Soon I started after school meetings and trips. I also soon became a part of Heather’s life. By the following summer I became her sister. Her mom is my mom and her dad is my dad and all because Mrs. Johnson changed her mind!
Here are some of the things that have meant the most to me with MSC:
Book discussions in 5th grade.
Sleepovers with mentors like Michelle and Lara.
My 4 summers at Echo Hill Camp. I developed leadership skills and toned arms from kayaking everyday.
Girl Talk Series, where all the girls get together and discuss issues that we face.
NYU trip when I realized that I was definitely going to college and certainly in a city.
From Guilford Avenue to Sandee Road really isn’t that many miles, but, in some ways it is far away. I have learned a lot, and I know that others have learned a lot from me. There are so many people here tonight that have cared about me, prayed for me and encouraged me. My “sisters.” Mrs. Johnson. My church family at the Gathering. The staff at Echo Hill. The staff at Garrison. All of my friends. My family. And, always, Heather.
I think the best way to sum it up is to tell you one more story. I did not attend my fifth grade graduation because I did not have a dress. I cried a lot about that. Well, on June 11th when I graduate from Garrison Forest I KNOW I will have a beautiful dress. I know because I already tried it on. It is home in my closet in my bedroom in my house. It is a perfect fit.