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Dec 27, 2014
CINCINNATI – They are poor but promising young people, plucked from neighborhoods ravaged by crime, drugs and violence and sent to some of the region's most prestigious private schools – all expenses paid.
They leave families and friends behind to live in specially supervised houses, often all through high school.
They are the scholars of Boys Hope Girls Hope, a nonprofit that will spend $44,274 per student this year alone to give each of them a good education and a shot at college and a better life.
"What's a life worth?" Boys Hope Girls Hope Executive Director Debbie Bowman asks. "It's a very expensive program, but it works."
But this isn't a story about numbers or metrics or return on investment. It's about the kids.
WCPO is following three Boys Hope Girls Hope scholars through the program. They are halfway through one of the most important academic years of each of their young lives.
Daija Jackson dives into her Spanish homework with the same enthusiasm she brings to just about everything.
The assignment: Design an outfit for a doll online and describe it in Spanish using at least 10 sentences.
Daija has some sentences written, but she isn't sure they are correct.
Girls Hope counselor Rosa Quintanilla leans over to help and explains where Daija went wrong with para and por – two Spanish words that both mean "for."
"Google lies!" Daija shrieks.
The Girls Hope house is such a short walk from St. Ursula Academy that Daija rolls out of bed 15 minutes before the first bell and is right on time for class.
This is Daija's second year at the high school and her first year in Girls Hope. She's lived in the house for a few months but clearly feels right at home.
After finishing Spanish, Daija races up the stairs, grabs her guitar, tunes it and starts to practice.
"We have our first recital at open house, and apparently we're doing this song, and I need to practice because I'm horrible at it," Daija says.
Her upper lip curls into her mouth as she concentrates on the music.
As Daija strums, her fellow scholars zip in and out of the dining room turned study hall.
A younger girl has a headache. Another has papers for Quintanilla to sign for her teachers. There are questions about showers and snacks.
"Rosa," Daija squeals as she stops strumming. "I got through the whole piece with a minimal amount of failure!"
"Great!" Quintanilla responds.
With eight girls and one Quintanilla, the house is hectic. It's also secure and stable.
That's what Daija's dad, Larry Jackson, wanted for his daughter when he urged her last school year to apply for Boys Hope Girls Hope.
Jackson said he's always known his daughter was bright. He got her enrolled in kindergarten when she was just four years old, and he's always read to her.
As she got older, and it got more difficult for him to support her on the money he makes doing odd jobs, he started looking for programs that might be able to help.
"When I ran across Boys Hope Girls Hope, I was having trouble feeding her," said Jackson, who has had primary custody of Daija since she was a toddler. The program has operated since 1991 in Cincinnati.
"Every month, we were on the verge of being evicted. When Boys Hope Girls Hope came along, that was right on time," he said. "They help her with education. She can sleep. She can eat."
That doesn't mean it has been easy for Jackson to live apart from his baby girl.
"That was a hard decision," he said. "I mean, let my baby go live someplace else? That was really hard."
Jackson decided it was the best thing for them both.
"It's not like I'm losing her," he said. "They afford her the opportunity and things that I can't."
For Daija, the Girls Hope house in East Walnut Hills isn't just about a cozy house and full pantry. It also gives her the house full of sisters she's never had.
"Everybody in the program is like brothers and sisters," said Daija, who turned 15 in November. "I like how we have that bond and connection."
Daija's grades also have improved dramatically since becoming part of Boys Hope Girls Hope this year, she said. She has gone from getting Cs and Ds in her classes last year to As and Bs this year, she says.
Still, it isn't easy for Daija to be away from her father.
"My dad, he's almost 60 now. We kind of help raise each other now. I was kind of worried for him, for his sake," she said. "He knows it's for a good cause."
He does know that, he said. It's been hard for Jackson, not having Daija home everyday. But he reminds himself that the program is what's best for his girl.
"She likes it, and she needs it. She's learning how to be a woman because she's around other women," he said.
"She's getting a full-fledged opportunity to do something with her life."
Jabril Bryant sits behind a large, wooden desk on the second floor of WCPO's office building and leans toward a computer screen, pen and notebook at the ready.
As an intern at Channel 9 this school year, one of Jabril's primary jobs is to review public service announcements, or PSAs, sent to the station each week.
He slides a DVD into the computer and watches, taking notes.
"I just have a few general questions, and I always keep them in mind," said Jabril, a senior at DePaul Cristo Rey High School. "Are they beneficial for the local Cincinnati area? Does it send out a good message? And does it hold the audience's interest?"
On another device, he watches a series of video clips that show parents hurrying to teach their kids to get dressed, cook or ride a bike, with the rush producing ridiculous results each time.
Each message then encourages parents to teach children to brush their teeth for two minutes – an important lesson that doesn't take long to learn.
Jabril, an aspiring filmmaker, likes the one that shows a girl crashing her bike into a garbage can. He'll recommend it to his supervisor and see if it ends up on air.
Jabril has been working at WCPO each Thursday since late August. (He started the job after a reporter and photographer began following him as part of this story.)
When he's not reviewing PSAs, Jabril watches the noon newscast, either from the studio or from the technical side and asks lots and lots of questions.
"I want to become a film director so I think I annoy them a lot," he said with a smile. "I ask them how they know what type of information to type in, cues on how to switch the camera frame or how to switch to a commercial."
He also talks with employees in different areas of the station, whether it's Henry Blood in commercial production or Good Morning Tri-State anchor Kathrine Nero in news. He wants to understand their jobs and what it takes to keep a TV station humming.
Jabril has done so well during his internship that he is one of 22 seniors to be honored at DePaul Cristo Rey for receiving the highest possible scores from their supervisors during the first term of the school year.
The morning of the awards ceremony, he walked to the front of the crowded room, took his certificate of achievement and smiled broadly before he sat with his classmates.
Now 18, Jabril thinks back to his 12-year-old self, and he can hardly believe the change.
He was a kid who would get physically ill at school because he was so anxious about being away from home, said Trina Bryant, Jabril's mom.
Jabril credits his mom for working hard as a single mother to raise him, his older brother and older sister. His dad hasn't been a big part of his life, and Jabril didn't understand until he was older how tough things were for his mom sometimes, he said.
"There were times where we were paycheck to paycheck or I didn't know where their next meal was going to come from even though I was working a full-time job when I was going through a divorce trying to make ends meet for three kids," Tina Bryant said.
Jabril's older brother and sister had to watch him sometimes when his mother was working full-time and going to school so she could get a better job.
"It was a struggle. It was some guilt. It was also a mode of survival that I didn't want to let them down," she said. "No matter how hard things got, you didn't want to let them down."
That determination makes Jabril's mom one of his most important role models, he said.
But it has been Boys Hope Girls Hope and Jabril's high school, DePaul Cristo Rey, that have made him who he is today, Jabril said.
Before he started the program the summer before his freshman year, Jabril said he had friends who did "ridiculous things" – drinking, drugs and even trying to blow up cars.
"I just wanted to avoid all that because I was focused on my future," he said.
He went from living in rough neighborhoods, always feeling like he had to watch his back, to a house full of boys with the same goals and adults who were always there for him.
Now a senior, he has become a leader as one of the oldest boys in the Boys Hope house in Finneytown.
He knows how the chore chart works, where the sneakers are supposed to go and can help the younger boys with their homework.
And less than halfway through his senior year, two colleges — Bowling Green University and University of Akron — have accepted him. He plans to study business or marketing in college and maybe minor in film.
Jabril has a lot more work ahead of him before high school graduation, but he's confident he's on the right path.
"If I had stayed in the same community situation, I would have no clue where I would go in my life," he said. "Now I have a clear vision of what I want to do ahead of me."
It's 10 minutes until 11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in October. Rico Hill walks into class at Northern Kentucky University and takes a seat in the second row.
It's been a long day already.
As manager for the men's basketball team, Rico often starts weekday practices at 6 a.m. – long before his classes begin at 9 a.m.
Still, Rico stays alert and engaged.
The class is University 101, and instructor Anita Adkins is talking about the roadblocks for success at NKU. The course is designed to help students who come from poor homes or are the first in their families to attend college.
"It's supposed to be hard. It's college," she tells them. "But I want to make sure you're working smarter."
She tells all the students to write on a piece of paper something they're "really, really good at."
Rico hunches over his paper and writes.
Several students share their answers. One young man says he's good at dancing. Another says making music.
Rico raises his hand and gives his answer: "Working well with others."
Adkins labels that "leadership" and asks Rico how he got to be good at it.
"First thing I did was watching someone else do it, and they were so good at it," Rico said. "They had a lot of people following what they were doing so I wanted to follow the same steps."
Rico says he took a chance by volunteering to work in group projects his first year in high school.
"Then I started to take roles as a leader myself," he said. Eventually, he even helped coach his school's freshman basketball squad after he didn't make the team his junior year. "That was a big step for me."
Adkins stresses that nobody in the class got good without practice.
What his classmates don't know is that Rico also has a secret weapon: Boys Hope Girls Hope.
Now 19, Rico graduated from St. Xavier High School in 2014 after starting Boys Hope Girls Hope during his freshman year.
"My (high school) retention counselor suggested it for me after she saw me struggling," Rico said outside of class. "She told me it would be a great advantage for me."
Before Boys Hope Girls Hope, Rico spent a lot of time helping with his younger brother and younger sister.
"My mom's a single parent," he said. "It was a lot for me being able to get from school and back and having a lot to deal with at home."
His mom was hesitant about the program at first, Rico said, in part because she didn't know how she could manage the family without him.
"When I was there, I held a lot of things together," he said.
Eventually, though, Tanya Hughes told her son the decision was his.
"I really don't like to be away from him like that," she said. "It was an emotional thing."
Living at the Boys Hope house gave Rico structured time to study, with counselors always looking over his shoulder to make sure he was doing his work.
"I was like close to failing out," Rico said of his freshman year before Boys Hope Girls Hope. "I finished school in the middle tier of my class."
He learned discipline and leadership and how to live among a group of boys, something that has come in handy for dorm life.
Not that Rico spends all that much time in his dorm.
He's taking a full load of classes at NKU, majoring in middle grades education with an eye towards coaching basketball.
There are the early-morning basketball practices.
And he works about 25 hours a week off campus at two different part-time jobs — one at Skyline Chili in Walnut Hills and the other at Burke & Schindler, a Cincinnati accounting firm.
Those jobs help pay the college costs that aren't covered by his Pell grant, his out-of-state grant and his scholarships from Boys Hope Girls Hope, the Anthony Munoz Foundation and the Cincinnati Scholarship Foundation, he said.
It's a lot of work. But Rico has seen other Boys Hope Girls Hope scholars work hard so he knows he can do it.
"I think it's made him become a better person," Hughes said. "He's more mature, and he's more responsible."
He will need those qualities to get through college, balancing classes and studying with basketball and his part-time jobs.
For the scholars in high school, college is the prize for all their hard work. For the scholars in college, the reward is a better life beyond poverty and welfare and neighborhoods where they don't feel safe.
It's all about transforming lives, Bowman says, one at a time.
"What we are," she said, "is freedom through education."
For more information about Boys Hope Girls Hope Cincinnati or to donate, go to http://www.bhghcincinnati.org.
For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.
Follow Emily Maxwell on Twitter @EmilyWCPO.