Dulaney High School senior Randall Davidson has won Barnes & Noble’s national “My Favorite Teacher” essay competition after penning a letter about the strong impact a science teacher had on him while his family was homeless.
The essay, in which he tells teacher Laura Braly how much she helped him during his freshman year, earned $5,000 and a $500 gift card for Braly, another $5,000 for Dulaney High School, and a $500 gift card and new Nook for Davidson, according to Baltimore County Public Schools.
“Until my junior year, no one cared to get to know the real me,” Davidson wrote.
“But then I met you [Laura Braly], my ‘academic ghostbuster’ of sorts! Enrolling in your Paramedical Biology class was the best decision I’ve made. You got me to open up. You saw my true potential and refused to let me hide it any longer.
“At the risk of sounding cliché, you have to know that you changed my life. It’s because of you that I am now a straight-A student and have been offered admission to my favorite university. . . . Everyone needs a hero. You are mine.”
Davidson has now been accepted to college and is on track to become a physician.
He was also featured in the BCPS “Face of the Week” spotlight:
As his classes at Ridgely Middle School ended and the warm summer of 2013 yawned before him, Randall Davidson looked forward to getting ready for high school. He would start at Dulaney in August, maybe try out for the football team, spend the summer considering his possibilities and preparing for fall.
Then came June.
The foreclosure notice gave Randall and his family – his father, a retired federal police officer, and mother and grandmother, both on disability – just four days to vacate. There was no place to go, no backup plan. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, Randall was homeless.
“We pretty much spent all the money we had, tried to make it last as long as we could,” says Randall, now 17 and a senior at Dulaney. “We lived in a hotel as long as we could.”
The family struggled to find a way, for a time even giving up their three dogs to a kennel paid for by a Good Samaritan. Friends and others helped out with food and other provisions. Meanwhile, Randall tried to focus on school and on starting his freshman year without a home.
“It was definitely difficult with the academics. They weren’t a first priority,” Randall says. His mind often elsewhere; he ended his freshman year with mostly D’s and E’s.
Dulaney’s staff jumped in to help, Randall says – teachers and school counselors who were aware of his circumstances. “I didn’t ask for help, but they were there to work with me,” he says. “It’s not something that’s easy to talk about.”
Homelessness is never easy. That summer, Randall joined the ranks of more than 2,200 Baltimore County Public Schools students who, for a variety of reasons, found themselves without a home to return to at the end of the school day. Educators say such conditions make it difficult to focus on academics or become involved in school life. Mobility is high, and for homeless students, anxiety and uncertainty are, too.
But as dire as 2013 was for the Davidsons, the experience planted a seed inside Randall. Seeing how easily homelessness can befall a family, he began thinking about what he could do to help ease the burdens that many homeless students feel.
“Once I became homeless, I realized there are a lot more (homeless) students in the schools than I thought. But it’s not something you talk about. You just don’t know they’re there,” Randall says today. “You also realize that it could really happen to anybody.”
The spirit to give back
The Davidsons’ ordeal ended in January of Randall’s freshman year. The family found a rental property and began to put down another tentative set of roots in Timonium. As life returned to normal, Randall says, he refocused on school; his grades had taken a hit, but now he was determined to arrest the slide. And, eventually, the family reclaimed their three dogs – Abby, a Rottweiler; Rosie, a pug; and Puppy, a Jack Russell terrier.
And Randall began to act on the seed that sprouted from his long months being homeless. So many people had helped him and his family, had done so much; “I wanted to give back,” he says. “I wanted to find a way to help homeless people here just like the people who had helped us.”
Working with his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Lutherville-Timonium, Randall established a collection drive – clothes, food, dog food, anything that would be helpful to those in need and without a home. Bins appeared at the church in early 2016, and between the church and Randall, requests for donations went out over social media and by word of mouth. To date, more than 600 people have donated everything from coats to tents, sleeping bags to bags of groceries.
Randall’s self-directed project didn’t go unnoticed at Dulaney High School, either. The school’s principal, Sam Wynkoop, had been watching as Randall dealt with his family’s crisis and was impressed when he learned of his student’s decision to start the collection. “He’s in elite company as far as what kind of person he is,” Wynkoop says. “He’s had to navigate stuff that we as adults would have a hard time navigating.”
Randall’s commitment to growth also impacted his academic performance, Wynkoop says. Gone are the D’s and E’s of Randall’s traumatic first year; in 2017, he’s making straight A’s. “He’s really had to work for it, and this has been a progression for him,” Wynkoop says, “but I think in the end it’s made him a better person.”
Others were impressed, too. This year, Randall’s work earned him a nomination for the 2017 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards program, a prestigious national honor that recognizes good works done by students across the nation. The Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, now in its 22nd year, is conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Of the thousands of entries this year, only 336 students were honored – two winning students from each state and 234 “Distinguished Finalists” who are presented with an engraved bronze medallion. Randall was one of six finalists for Maryland, the only one from the Baltimore metro area. He’ll receive his medallion during Dulaney’s Senior Awards Night later this spring.
“Yeah, it meant a lot,” Randall says. “It’s (recognition) that there are a lot of people in need.”
Now nearly four years from that terrible June, Randall is looking ahead again. A concussion from rec league football sidelined him from playing football for Dulaney this school year, but he’s getting ready to umpire baseball games for the Lutherville-Timonium Recreation Council this summer.
The collection drive is still accepting clothing, food, and other donations for the homeless; the family’s church still houses the bins for contributions, and Randall says he has no plans to close the collections.
“There’s no set goal in mind for when we end it,” Randall says. “I’d like to see it grow bigger and maybe have multiple (collection) places.”
And just as he did four years ago, Randall is looking ahead to a new academic challenge; this year, he was accepted to study at Stevenson University. He plans to major in biology, he says; ever thinking about giving back, he has plans to enter the school’s pre-medical advising track with the goal of studying to become a physician someday.
“A lot of people take for granted what they have and where they live. I know I did,” he says. “And a lot of people worry about people making fun of them, thinking they’re stupid and all.
“But it’s not like that. It can happen to anyone.”
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