Towering over the pulpit of a northeast Charlotte church on Sunday, John Crawford gestured to the hundreds of family members gathered in the sanctuary who were cheering and snapping pictures.
Then he looked at the 89 students receiving scholarships and offered a stern admonition. “Don’t let me down,” Crawford said. “Don’t let these folks down.”
Crawford was the final speaker at the awards ceremony for the Charlotte Housing Authority Scholarship Fund, which he founded in 1983. On Sunday, the fund gave out more than $162,000 in scholarships to students whose families receive housing assistance from the city.
Ten former housing authority residents also showed up in caps and gowns to be honored as 2014 college graduates.
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Crawford was a youth services coordinator at CHA in 1983, when a young man who lived in public housing asked for help raising $300 for college tuition. “I told him, ‘We’ll get you that money,’ ” Crawford recalled in his speech.
They did, and the student graduated the next year, but Crawford sensed a greater need. He got on the phone to friends, trying to raise more money for more students.
Three decades later, the foundation has given out $2.8 million in scholarships to more than 700 teens. Organizers have recruited corporate and big-name donors from the across the city, and Foundation for the Carolinas invests the endowment.
The scholarship fund tries to help every teenager who gets help from CHA and is accepted to college.
On Sunday, speakers acknowledged that the scholarship recipients have to overcome hurdles associated with poverty or worse. But in 31 years, the foundation has seen its share of success stories, including alumni who were speakers and presenters at Sunday’s ceremony.
The organization has grown in its mission. To help give students a boost, it has expanded to do more than just handing out checks and is now building a mentoring program. And last school year, students went to Belk’s corporate offices to learn how to write an effective resume, carry themselves in a job interview and how to dress for work.
Jamil McSwain, who just graduated from South Mecklenburg High School and plans to attend Central Piedmont Community College in the fall, said many of his peers know that even if they have the grades to go to college, student loans and other debts can make it harder to achieve their goals.
He appreciates the scholarship, he said, but what he likes most about the program isn’t the money.
“One good thing about this program, everyone gets the monetary aspects, but it's not just the money, there's also a support network,” McSwain said. “All these people are pulling for you.”
Brian Hemphill, the president of West Virginia State University, told the group his own story of overcoming low expectations. The son of farmers in eastern North Carolina, counselors encouraged him and other young black men to go into the military or seek jobs at the local factory. He went to college instead, and used doubts about his potential as motivation.
“Your path to success is going to be hard, but you must move beyond those obstacles,” Hemphill told the scholarship recipients sitting in the audience. “Do not allow your environment to define who you are or who you will be.”