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Give the gift of time this holiday season

The Mission Possible Program is a mentorship for students from low-income communities. It aims to educate and expose students to a variety of things they might never have experienced otherwise.

Ever since I was 9, I have wanted to become an architect. On a cold winter's day in 2009, my father and I stood on a Baltimore street corner with the Salvation Amy red kettle and rang the bell for donations. At that moment, my dream was slipping away.

Although my dad was dressed nicely with a tie, we weren't volunteers, we were workers. We were homeless, living in a shelter, and to earn our keep and work our way back, we manned the red kettles. I was there to support my dad, but it was also almost unbearably hard. I had to swallow my pride.

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Delatha Field, 74, rings the Salvation Army bell outside Walmart at 3601 Washington Blvd. She has been a Salvation Army volunteer for 50 years.
Delatha Field, 74, rings the Salvation Army bell outside Walmart at 3601 Washington Blvd. She has been a Salvation Army volunteer for 50 years. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

I'd always loved to draw, mostly cars and buses — the things I saw every day. Then my family moved from Baltimore to Atlanta in hopes of better job prospects. Suddenly, skyscrapers were all around me, bigger and brighter than those I had seen in Baltimore. I studied and drew them. I had an idea that I could create an entire city that would compete with other major cities like New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago. Architecture was fast becoming a passion. The trouble was, I couldn't see a clear path to my future — or people in that path who could help me.

No one in my family was an architect. My mother was a retired federal worker, and my dad was a barber who also worked in construction. We didn't know any architects. We also didn't have a financially stable household.

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After we moved back to Baltimore when employment opportunities in Atlanta didn't work out, we ended up in the shelter. We rang the bell. We shoveled snow. Sometimes, we stood on street corners with colorful signs to ask for help from passing traffic. Every dollar went for essentials. And still, my parents refused to let my dreams die.

A student string ensemble at the Baltimore School for the Arts performs Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango,” arranged by cellist Luka Stefanovic, 17, who is in his junior year. (Courtesy video)

My mom gave me a one of my life's biggest gifts making sure I got to the right high school, the Baltimore School for the Arts. At BSA, I learned how to draw with more media than just a pencil. My guidance counselor played a huge role in my admission to and scholarship from Morgan State University.

While our housing situation was finally a little more stable, our finances still were not. My scholarship paid for tuition, but I still needed basics like food and Internet service. I needed to work, and the best job I could find that would accommodate my schedule was at a BWI coffee shop. Work eats into study time, so it's taking me longer to finish, and I won't graduate with my class.

Through a family connection, I met Brooke Trivas, an architect at Perkins+Will. She opened her heart and the door for me to explore a world of architecture beyond school boundaries. She helped me cover expenses so I could get Internet access to do homework and school projects. She gave me advice and introduced me to her colleague, designer, Larry Carr, who, like me, is African American.

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Each week, I take the MARC train to Perkins+Will in downtown Washington, D.C., where Mr. Carr assists me with my college courses and gives me access to the atmosphere of a firm. He's introduced me to other architects and interns and helped me get a scholarship from Perkins+Will to cover some expenses.

On Christmas 1866, African-American pastors founded a Bible school in the basement of a Baltimore church to educate newly freed slaves. On Sunday, current students joined members of Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church to celebrate the gathering that launched Morgan State University.

Ms. Trivas, Mr. Carr and so many others have shown me what I don't know and helped me see the talents and gifts within me. Perkins+Will has become a second home for my educational resources. And I've begun to see once again that shining future ahead of me.

During this season of giving, I know it's often easy for a lot of people to write a check or put some money in a red kettle or donate a holiday meal. Those are wonderful gifts. But the gifts of time, knowledge and caring as a mentor can be even more important and longer lasting. I'm living proof of how giving your heart can make a big difference.

On that cold corner a few years ago, I never could have imagined that I would someday feel at home in the offices of one of the world's largest and most respected architecture firms. My dreams are alive and well because so many people have given the best gift of all — the gift of themselves.

David Carter (dacar17@morgan.edu) is an architecture student at Morgan State University.

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