Growing up in a government housing project in Southeast Washington, Joe Fisher never thought much about college. One of eight children whose father didn't make it past 10th grade or his mother past sixth, college just did not seem like an option.
But thanks in part to a track and field scholarship to Catholic University, Fisher earned not only a bachelor's degree but also a master's degree.
Now, 40 years after he graduated from college, the 62-year-old Laurel resident has helped more than 500 young men and women get college degrees they never thought were possible.
Fisher's is a story of determination and vision that has made the Laurel-based program that he started a quarter century ago, First Generation College Bound Inc., a heartwarming success story with a statewide reputation.
"It's recognized as one of the really successful programs of its kind in the state — perhaps the leading such program," said state Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a College Park Democrat who represents the Laurel area.
"A lot of people have good visions," Rosapepe added. "But it's all in the execution, in turning them into reality. And Joe and his folks have just done a spectacular job of turning a great vision into a very, very practical success."
First Generation College Bound celebrates its 25th birthday this year, and will do so with a gala Thursday, June 17, at the Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center at the University of Maryland College Park.
"I've been blessed to see the reality of my vision," Fisher said during a recent interview in his Sandy Spring Road office. "We've gone from helping 10 kids a year [attend college] to more than 150. … What I saw 25 years ago, I knew it was possible."
It has not been easy.
Fisher launched First Generation College Bound on a shoestring and for years ran it out of his house. He had moved to Laurel with his wife, after earning his master's degree in urban education at Morgan State University and landing a teaching job at Harper's Choice Middle School, in Columbia.
Despite his degree and his teaching position, Fisher had not forgotten his roots.
"In my community, the goal for kids was just to finish high school," recalled Fisher, who retired from his teaching job three years ago. "That was a major, major celebration. And then, you got a job with the government or went into the military."
Fisher, in fact, had always assumed he would follow his older brothers into the Army after high school. But his athletic success at Springarn High School changed all that.
He wound up at Catholic University, the first in his family to attend college. He exchanged his athletic scholarship for a need-based scholarship when he learned, to his surprise, that he qualified for such a scholarship.
More important, learning of that scholarship made him realize just how little low-income families know about ways to afford a college education. That realization deepened over the years: A stint as a women's track coach at Catholic University opened is eyes to how unaware many youngsters were about financial aid, and an internship at the Baltimore City jail taught him how many poor youths wound up in prison, rather than in college, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In 1990, Fisher launched First Generation College Bound and began the work he felt he was meant to do.
"I felt I had to do something," he said. "This is not just a local issue, this is a national issue. This is something that's very serious. It does not make sense to me why any person with a high school diploma who really wants to go to college, especially a low-income person, does not go."
Fisher started his program working with families at Laurel's Kimberly Gardens, a government-subsidized apartment complex similar to the Southeast Washington housing in which he grew up.
Because so many government aid programs last four to six years and often end by the time many needy families become aware of them, Fisher said he designed his program to last 20 years.
And because he also knew first-hand that many low-income families are unfamiliar with the whole college experience, he designed First Generation College Bound as a full-service program.
Fisher and his small staff do everything from reaching out to families in poorer areas and running a Homework Club for young students, to signing high school students up for the SAT and helping them fill out college financial aid forms. They also stay in contact with their students once they are in college, to keep them on track.
"We are a college access program at ground zero," he said. "We're in the housing projects, in the community. … Even though we're in the high schools, we go to homes, go to parents' jobs if necessary. We knock on doors. It's not that these kids are not motivated. They just don't have the resources."
In the past quarter-century, First Generation College Bound has expanded into five county high schools — Laurel, Central, Fairmont Heights, Parkdale and Potomac — and two years ago established an official partnership with the Prince George's County Public Schools.
The program eventually moved out of Fisher's living room, first to an office on Main Street and then, in 2012, to its current suite next to city hall. It now has four full-time employees and 20 contractors, and has become a well-known presence, especially in Laurel.
"It's been a great thing for the Laurel community," said Laurel High Principal Dwayne Jones. "Joe's along with these kids for the whole ride."
Jones added: "College could have happened for a lot of these kids, but unfortunately, it probably wouldn't have happened without Joe's program."
Beyond Kimberly Gardens
The list of college graduates helped by First Generation College Bound includes business leaders, ministers and at least one elected official: State Del. Alonzo Washington.
Washington was a young boy living with his siblings and his single mother in Kimberly Gardens when Fisher knocked on his door in the mid 1990s. Fisher sat down with the then-eighth-grader's mother and explained how his organization could help her children.
Washington joined the Homework Club, did well in school and in 2007 graduated with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the University of Maryland College Park, the first in his family to earn a college degree. Five years later, he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the Maryland House of Delegates.
Although he already was a good student, Washington credits First Generation College Bound with making it much easier for him to go to college.
"He made it much more of a seamless process," he said.
Washington has not forgotten that help. During this year's General Assembly session, he sponsored a bill to set up a grant program through which the state could fund organizations like First Generation College Bound. The bill was adopted, and while any funds will have to be included in the budget proposed next year by Gov. Larry Hogan, both Washington and Rosapepe, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, say they have met with Hogan and are optimistic he will fund the program.
"I am confident we're going to convince the governor that this is a great idea," Washington said. "We need more Joe Fishers in the world."
"I wouldn't cash the check, but I wouldn't be discouraged either," Rosapepe said. "We're really optimistic it'll get off the ground."
As for Fisher, he has high hopes for the new funding program. He wants to use the added money to stabilize his five high school sites in Prince George's and to create an office that would help others who want to provide similar college access services across the state.
"If you're on the Eastern Shore and you want to start a program like this, we want to be able to go in … tell you what to do to get everything set up," he explained. "And if you do get started, we want to offer you the technical assistance you need.
"This is something that's needed big time. It's a lot to do this. The running around you have to do is crazy. … Everything is there for these kids, but getting them through the process is a challenge."
Fisher hailed the new law as a milestone for increasing college access for needy students in Maryland.
"This is major," he said. "It's historic."
'Like a father'
Another young man who got a boost from First Generation College Bound will be supporting the program in a different way.
Like Washington, Gavin Brown was a boy living in Section 8 housing — in his case, the Cherry Branch Townhomes on Cherry Lane — when Joe Fisher showed up at his door 20 years ago. Also like Washington, Brown joined the Homework Club, stayed in it for years and graduated from Laurel High School. He went on to graduate from the University of Valley Forge, in Phoenixville, Pa., and is now a youth pastor at Brightmoor Christian Church, in Novi, Mich., and a motivational speaker.
Next month, Brown will serve as the emcee for First Generation College Bound's 25th anniversary celebration.
"I was the first generation in my family to go off to college," Brown said. "Would I have gone to college without [Fisher's help]? I really don't think so."
Where he grew up "was a rough area at the time," Brown said. "If I didn't have that vision of what could happen in my life outside of that, I would've probably succumbed to the influences that were there when I was growing up. I would've probably ended up selling drugs to make money."
Fisher, Brown said, "put the seed in my mind that, man, this could be my life beyond here — getting out from where we live, going to college.
"Still, to this day, [Fisher] is a really big mentor for me, almost like a father figure in my life."
Fisher is pleased by all of the men and women he has helped earn college degrees. But he is perhaps most delighted by the high school equivalency degree earned by a 52-year-old woman with the sixth-grade education who waited until her eight children graduated before she earned that degree.
His mother died in 2006, but she was proud of her degree. And so is the son who has devoted so much time and energy to helping needy families get a decent education.
"What she did was amazing to me," Fisher said. "She had that commitment to get it done. Just incredible."