When Aisha Armstrong started her freshman year at the Academy for College and Career Exploration in Northwest Baltimore, she wasn't worried about making it through the next four years; she was worried about making it through the next day on $2 sandwiches from Subway.
Her grandmother had died, leaving her family unpinned, and the 14-year-old was shouldering some of the responsibility of caring for her family. Armstrong felt that unless school could stabilize her home life, she had no use for it.
Enter a group of strangers. They didn't look like her — or share the background and experiences that had caused her life to unravel. But they would help stitch it back together.
For the past decade, that's what Thread, a volunteer-driven mentoring program, has been doing for more than 200 Baltimore students: creating a family support structure to help them through graduation and six years beyond.
Depending on the student, that could include picking them up for school or from Central Booking, providing a place to sleep or a morning wake-up call, or helping to prepare meals or college applications.
The program, which wins praise from federal education officials, targets students performing in the bottom 25 percent of the freshman classes at Frederick Douglass High School, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and the Academy for College and Career Exploration.
The results have been extraordinary: 100 percent of the students who joined Thread have graduated from high school within five years. Almost all of them were accepted to college, and 80 percent of those who attended college have received a four- or two-year degree or certification. By comparison, across Baltimore the high school dropout rate is 11 percent.
Armstrong's "Thread family" helped her with the little things — doing her laundry, rides to school, making sure she had food — as well as the biggest decision of her life at the age of 17: to enter the foster care system.
"After that, school was a breeze," said Armstrong, now 18 and a student at the Community College of Baltimore County. "I feel like they gave me a group of people who were uniquely designed for me."
That's the essence of Thread, which started as a homework club at Dunbar and grew into a layered network of hundreds of people. Their mission: to eliminate the barriers that stand between underperforming students, a high school diploma and self-sufficiency. Their motto: Don't give up.
Johns Hopkins University students largely drive the organization, forming volunteer groups of up to eight people — the Thread families, who are intimately involved in students' lives.
The small groups are backed by teams responsible for organized programming such as tutoring and SAT prep. Another layer of support comes from collaborators, such as corporate or nonprofit organizations, that provide pro bono services like legal representation, networking opportunities and job placement.
Other programs around the nation target the worst-performing students or attempt to provide holistic support, said Khalilah Harris, deputy director for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans at the U.S. Department of Education.
But it's unusual for a stand-alone program to tackle both, and to continue beyond graduation.
"When they get out of school, that's where the rubber hits the road," Harris said. "Too many programs are structured where a duty is giving to the young person; it's a one-way relationship. Thread using that concept of a family … is something we've not seen across the country."
But more impressive than Thread's statistics, observers say, is its ability to weave a new social fabric in Baltimore, creating families that are not connected by blood and forming communities that are not found on maps.
The program has retained all 207 students who entered, and its network includes more than 700 volunteers and more than 150 nonprofit, corporate and institutional collaborators.
Thread's success has captivated a host of entrepreneurs, philanthropists, community and business leaders, including high-profile donors such as Patricia and Mark Joseph, who recently gave the organization its largest gift: $1 million. It is the lead contribution in a $7.5 million, three-year campaign to support over 300 students and alumni by spring of 2017, with an eventual goal of supporting 3,000 students.
Developer Mark Joseph, founder of the Baltimore School for the Arts and former head of the city school board, said he is most struck by Thread's ability to defy the odds.
"There's a notion that if you missed kids when they're young, you just can't really change that," Joseph said. "I believe that this whole-family concept shows that that's wrong. What [founder Sarah Hemminger] has managed to do, and how she's doing it, it's an incredible story."
Seeking to belong
Thread's story began 11 years ago, as Hemminger sat at a traffic light at Orleans and Caroline streets in East Baltimore on her way to class at the Johns Hopkins' School of Medicine, where she was studying biomedical engineering.
At 24, the Indiana transplant had all the outward signs of success, from her Kate Spade purse to a suburban house. Yet she was miserable.
"Thread was really created out of my own selfishness," she recalled. "It started because I was alone, miserable, and I didn't know what to do about it."
Nearby sat Dunbar High, where Hemminger felt she could lose that superficial facade and find a deeper connection.
She knew what poverty and bad circumstances could do to promising students. Her husband, Ryan Hemminger, went from an A-student to an "at-risk student" when his family fell on hard times. He made it to the U.S. Naval Academy because a group of teachers rallied around him, and is now the budget director for the Baltimore school system.
"I assumed there were kids at Dunbar who were just like Ryan," she said. "And I realized I had more confidence in my ability to be friends with them than my peers at Hopkins."
The program started as the Incentive Mentoring Program, an after-school homework group run by Hemminger and three classmates. It attracted 15 teens with pizza and camping trips.
Maurice Portee, part of that first group, still calls Hemminger "Ma" — because that's who you called if you were hiding from the police under a trash can after being involved in a high-speed chase with a stolen car. That's who you called after leaving college and having nowhere else to go.
Portee was a standout athlete who was identified for the program because he struggled with homelessness and felt that making money on a drug corner was more worthwhile than being in school.
His journey through the program — which was renamed Thread last year — has included weaving in and out of trouble. But with the guidance of Hemminger and another mentor, he is finishing his senior year at Coppin State University.
He's also opening the apartment he shares with his fiancee to students who remind him of himself. He was one of about 10 students Hemminger took in over the years.
"I know it's a cliche, but I really don't know where I'd be without Sarah," said Portee, now 25. "But I know now, I'm doing this all on my own."
Poverty and isolation
Others say Thread stands out because of Hemminger's philosophy about the cycle of poverty — that it is a function of isolation. And Thread has brought to the forefront an uncomfortable truth about Baltimore: Poverty doesn't only isolate the impoverished.
Rodney Foxworth, a social entrepreneur, policy advocate and philanthropy consultant in Baltimore, joined the organization's board because he saw it was different from other nonprofits that seek to break the cycle of poverty through the city's youth.
"It has become a powerful tool to confront the dynamics of equity, power and race," Foxworth said. "I don't believe in the 'save poor kids' mentality, and what's important to me in this incredibly segregated city, is that in Thread, there are opportunities for transformation on both sides."
When Johns Hopkins President Ron Daniels took his post in 2009, he moved to the area without his family, and was looking for a way to connect to Baltimore. He encountered Thread at a networking event, and said it stood out "as one of the most extraordinary things I had ever been exposed to in Baltimore."
Thread's reach has extended to Daniels' personal and professional life. His wife, Joanne Rosen, who served on the organization's board for three years, packed an extra lunch for one of the students in the program for a year. Hopkins is among Thread's biggest financial supporters, and provides much of its volunteers and other resources.
Daniels also believes that it has also transformed the lives of Hopkins students. By connecting city high school and Hopkins students, he said, the program shows that all students — no matter where they attend school — have something to offer, and that "no student is a write-off."
On Friday, Richard Dismel, an Academy for College and Career Exploration senior and all-star baseball player, spoke of Thread's intense focus.
"I thought [tutoring] was all it was; then they were dropping me off at my house," Dismel said. "And I thought they were just doing it to see where I lived at and stalk me for the rest of my life."
"That's not entirely inaccurate," quipped his mentor, Hopkins senior Joel Pally.
The two met at Hopkins' Levering Hall to play a game of foosball — but not before Pally sat Dismel down to complete his state financial aid application.
Dismel, 18, plans to attend Garrett College, a two-year institution in Garrett County.
Thread's optimism should be tempered with caution, said Harris, the Department of Education official.
She's familiar with the challenges Baltimore students face. She was the operator of the Baltimore Freedom Academy charter school, which closed in 2013, and also worked with students in Baltimore's higher-education institutions.
She cautioned that even Thread's cocoon-like support cannot protect students forever.
In a recent conversation with a Dunbar graduate, she counseled him that as a black male he faced societal hurdles beyond Thread's reach.
"The fact that the matter is: You're a kid from Baltimore, and it's not enough to have that network," she said. "Once they're not that cutesy niche kid who persevered, who is having that conversation with them that they have to keep pushing?"
'A loving community'
For a woman who had no problem driving up to a group of drug dealers on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard — with McDonald's breakfast sandwiches for everyone in hand — to pick up a student for school, Hemminger is surprisingly uncomfortable with the fact that all of Thread's connections lead back to her.
"Nobody's here to save anybody — except themselves," she said. "We're here because we want to be part of a loving community. Everyone wants to be loved, acknowledged and cared for. In Thread we all feel a sense that we're known and understood. And that's what we all show up for."
Retiree Laurie Kelly showed up last year to fill a void in her life.
"As you get older, your world tends to get smaller, and I think people take less risks," said Kelly, 63, who lives in Owings Mills.
"My communities were gone. My kids' schools were gone, my job. Being a part of Thread has really opened me to a whole different world. It has given me purpose."
She began helping Thread students with speech writing last year, and met Armstrong, the program's graduation speaker.
Now Kelly shows up for Armstrong.
Recently, some of Armstrong's challenges have resurfaced. She is in an independent living program, but still struggles with leaving her mother's home, and her grades slipped after she missed three weeks of school.
Kelly and Armstrong's mentor Huston Collins are stitching the young woman's Thread family back together, to prevent any back-sliding to the patterns of high school.
"Don't bash me," Armstrong, recently asked of her mentor at a coffee shop, as she prepared to show her grades.
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"It's OK, Aisha. You're dealing with a lot of stuff," Kelly replied.
At their meeting, Kelly and Armstrong mapped out important dates and deadlines for finishing up the year and applying to BridgeEdU, a program founded by author and Thread collaborator Wes Moore, through which students have a personalized college freshman year, with a combination of classes and other experiences.
"I'm your talking calendar," Kelly said, rattling off a series of Saturdays in May and scribbling them in a planner.
After the session, Armstrong said she felt closer to her goal of attending Gallaudet University, a college for the deaf, and shouldering responsibilities for others, as she has for her mother, who is deaf. Still, she has trouble juggling her past and her future.
"This one day isn't going to solve all of my problems, and make the whole world better for me," Armstrong said of the meeting, "but it gets me one step closer to my goal."