When Students Grow Up
1. Yecenia Olmos
In 1998, Yecenia Olmos was a seventh grader in Carrie Ellis's (L.A. '97) class.
Today, she works for the Los Angeles city attorney's office.
I got interested in working with affordable housing because I grew up for 14 years living in a garage that was semi-converted into a dwelling. There were six of us living in one small room, with a little space partitioned off for my parents. Our bathroom was outside in a little shack. It was stressful, but school was our escape from that. Books and homework became my oasis from a frenetic situation at home.
Through my work now, I’m understanding that as much as everyone supports affordable housing, it’s much easier said than done. In 2012, in the wake of the recession, a California Supreme Court decision dissolved the state’s redevelopment agency, which was a major source of funding for affordable housing. Federal funding has been depleted too. That’s the harsh reality. Taking that into account, though, we need to do what we can to make sure the housing that does exist is sustainable.
After I graduated from college, my family moved out of the garage into a small apartment. Now we’re living in a rented house. I moved back in with them to help pay their bills, because I can’t afford yet to live on my own and still help out at home. I’ll take the bar exam in February—that’s the next big thing on my radar. Ultimately, my dream is to own my own home, because I’m so sick of paying rent.
Yecenia Olmos, 29, is a fellow in the housing division of the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office and a 2014 graduate of the UCLA School of Law. She grew up in South Central L.A. with three siblings. Her parents, immigrants from Mexico, never attended school past second grade. In seventh grade, Olmos took a journalism class taught by Carrie Ellis (L.A. ’97). Olmos went on to become a Gates Millennium Scholar and UCLA graduate. Though they now live on opposite sides of the country (Ellis lives near Washington, D.C., and works for Teach For America), the two remain in touch.
2. Bianca Edwards
In 2006, Bianca Edwards was in Barry Brinkley's (L.A. '01) college advisory group.
Today, she is a talent coordinator at BET Networks.
My senior year in high school, Brinkley made us apply for college scholarships every day. He’d make us finish two before we could go to basketball practice. He’d bribe us with Wendy’s. At the time, it was so annoying! But before I knew it, my college education was paid for up through my junior year. My mother was a single mom. When she realized the extent of the work he had us doing and how it paid off, she was at a loss for words. We’re both indebted to him for that.
Today, everyone thinks I’m in the perfect place careerwise. I work in New York, in this very creative space, and I’ve had tremendous opportunities. But I feel like I’m still evolving, still in this phase of self-discovery. My goal has always been to become an entrepreneur and an executive in the music industry, so I don’t think I’m at my peak yet.
What I value the most—more than all of the celebrities I’ve met through BET—has been working with kids in my community. When I was in high school, Mr. Brinkley arranged for some of us to tutor at an elementary school. One time I was having a terrible day, and I said I didn’t want to go. Brinks was like, “I don’t care. You’re going.” The second we walked in, my spirit lifted—so much that I’ve continued that kind of work to this day. I spend every Saturday mentoring a group of girls in Harlem through a program called Blue Nile Rites-of-Passage. It all sparked from Brinkley.
Bianca Edwards, 25, is a talent coordinator and assistant to the vice president of talent at BET Networks, where she has worked with celebrities from Beyoncé to Michelle Obama. As a high school student in Washington, D.C., Edwards was in Barry Brinkley’s (L.A. ’01) college advisory group. In 2012, she graduated from Belmont University with a bachelor’s degree in business, focused on the music industry. Brinkley remains a trusted mentor and friend.
3. Teaira Lewis
In 1996, Teaira Lewis was in a mentorship group led by Virginia Richard and Felicity Ross (Baltimore '93 and '94).
Today, she is a school therapist and counselor in Baltimore.
My mother was an addict, but around the time I was in third grade, she’d gotten herself together and regained custody of my sisters and brother and me. Then, in my eighth grade year, she relapsed. We were put out of our house and moved in with my grandmother. My mother would go missing for days at a time. When she did, I was the one who would go out looking for her, walking the streets, calling her friends, filing the missing person report.
By 14, I was helping to take care of my siblings, working at a retirement home to help buy food and clothing for all of us. It was hard—we didn’t always know if we were going to eat. There’d be times I worked all night and wouldn’t go to school the next day, but Ms. Messner would call my phone and tell me to get up and get to school. Ms. Messner and Ms. Richard really pushed me through school. They stayed in my corner.
One girl I’m counseling now is experiencing many of the same struggles I had to overcome. I can see the hurt in her face. As a therapist, I like to disclose a little of my past to let kids like her know there’s somebody out there who has been through the same thing. I was that little girl. I’m glad I’m in a position to use my past to help others. I love working with children and listening to their problems. If I can change one life for the better, my life is worthwhile.
Teaira Lewis, 31, is a therapist at Coldstream Elementary and Middle School in Baltimore and a counselor for previously incarcerated students and their families. She lives in York, Pennsylvania, with her two children and her husband, a basketball player for the Harlem Wizards. As a sixth grader, Lewis was in Felicity [Messner] Ross’s (Baltimore ’94) math class, as well as a mentorship group for girls co-led by Ross and Virginia Richard (Baltimore ’93). When Ross took a job at a different school to teach in a program for gifted math students, Lewis transferred with her and joined the program. Two decades later, they’re friends.
4. Pedro Carrillo
In 1993, Pedro Carrillo was an eighth grader in Laura Genao's (L.A. '92) English class.
Today, he is the director of a college access program at Cal Poly, Pomona.
In elementary school, I was one of only a few Latino kids in my class. I did okay, but I never felt like anyone looked for my potential. Ms. Genao was the first adult who stopped and listened to me, asked me questions about my life and what I wanted to do with my education. She gave me opportunities to showcase what I could do academically. She’s a Harvard alum, so one day some friends and I worked up the nerve to ask her, point blank, “You’re from Harvard. Why are you teaching us here?” I’ll never forget what she said: “Why don’t you deserve a teacher from Harvard?”
At Cal Poly, I majored in philosophy and I thought I was going to be a lawyer. But while I was in college, I started working with Upward Bound, and I really loved it. I was a tutor for kids who were a lot like myself—they came from low-income families, they were first-generation college students. So instead of going to law school, I’ve continued in that work.
My greatest success has been achieving what people who believed in me said I could achieve. I feel like I owe Ms. Genao for that, and the best way to pay that back is to pass it on to the next generation. Students ask me why I do this. I tell them it’s because someone did it for me. I tell them when they get older, they should go back to their neighborhood. Speak. Be a role model for the next set of kids. That’s beautiful.
Pedro Carrillo, 35, works at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, as the director of Educational Talent Search, a college access program for about 500 low-income students in the Chino Valley Unified School District. He grew up in Pasadena, the son of Mexican immigrants. His eighth grade English teacher, Laura Genao (L.A. ’92), is also Mexican American. She was the first teacher to open him up to the idea that he could succeed in college and beyond.
5. Vernon Davis
In 2004, Cheyanne Zahrt (Baltimore '02) was Vernon Davis's senior class advisor.
Today, Davis is a Baltimore City police officer.
I grew up in East Baltimore—just my mom raising my sister and me. My father was in and out of jail. But my great-grandmother said, “I’ll make sure this kid is all right.” She was a churched woman, so every day included some sort of outreach—serving at the soup kitchen, working at the food pantry. I kind of laugh about it now: I was a bad kid during the school days—being tough, getting in trouble—but on the weekends I was feeding the homeless with my great-grandma. Of everyone in my life, she made me the man I am today. She taught me how to care for others.
I recently started volunteering in a carpentry class at a local high school, showing students how to use graphic design equipment. A lot of them have never seen the human side of police. For a lot of kids, the first time they meet a police officer is one of the worst moments of their lives. Their dad is getting locked up, someone is hurt, there are bright lights, it’s frightening. I let them know who I am as a person. I tell them I came from the same situation they’re in. I’m a police officer. I also love art. And you can decide to do whatever you want to do, too.
Based on where I came from, I never thought I’d be where I am today. I’ve got my own place, my own car, my own family. I’m in my right mind. I’ve got food to eat. I’m not a millionaire, but I’m happy.
Vernon Davis, 29, is a Baltimore police officer and a graphic design student at Morgan State University. He joined the force as a patrol officer and quickly moved up the ranks to become a detective. In July, he joined the department’s media relations team. He lives in Owens Mill, Maryland, with his fiancee and their 1-year-old daughter. As a high school student, Davis developed a bond with Cheyanne Zahrt (Baltimore ’02), his senior class advisor. Zahrt became a mentor and friend, and the two keep up through social media.
6. Wendall Jefferson
In 1997, Wendall Jefferson was in Jason Kamras's (D.C. Region '96) middle school math class.
Today, he is a computer engineer.
I grew up at Stoddert Terrace, a public housing development in D.C. I’m the oldest son of six kids, raised by a single mother. The neighborhood was bad, but I used it as motivation. There were a lot of people wanting to help out, too, and a lot of programs for kids.
I definitely remember my first experience with computers. It had to be around fourth grade. I was in this after-school program, and once you finished your homework, they’d allow you to use the computer for down time. There weren’t that many computers, so I always raced to be the first to finish my homework. There were games, but I always wanted to understand the other applications. What did they do? So a teacher recommended me for a Saturday program at UDC [the University of the District of Columbia]. We took math, engineering, and programming classes. By fifth grade, I knew I wanted to be an engineer.
Today, I do mostly systems integration. Imagine you have one system, but you want to get it to speak with another system. How do you do that? I love the curiosity factor of the work. We just finished a project making enhancements to a system that monitors traffic on government networks to protect against hackers. It used to track hundreds of millions of records each day. Now it can track billions.
Wendall Jefferson, 31, is a system engineer for a private defense contractor, Vencore, working to protect the federal government from cyber threats. He lives in suburban Silver Spring, Maryland, where he recently became a first-time homeowner. As a middle school student, Jefferson learned math from Jason Kamras (D.C. Region ’96)—the 2005 National Teacher of the Year. In 2006, Jefferson stood as a groomsman in Kamras’s wedding.
About the Author
Leah Fabel is a Teach For America alum (Chicago '01) and has been at One Day since 2011. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, who is also an education journalist, and their two sons.