One familys long road
Gloria Donaldson-Sampson came to Springfield in the 1980s as an inmate of the Department of Corrections assigned to a work-release program at the Sojourn Shelter. She enrolled in classes at what was then Sangamon State University and was hired as a student worker at Illinois Issues magazine before her drug addiction seduced her into violating her parole and she found herself in prison again.
Still, she says, the experience had a profound effect.
"It was my first glimpse back into a normal life," she says. "Even though I didn't quite get it then, it planted a seed."
That seed eventually took root, grew strong, and has now blossomed in a way Gloria never imagined. This spring, she is joining three of her children and one of her grandchildren in receiving diplomas. For the Donaldson clan, it's not just graduation; it's transformation--proof that the family has beaten old habits, broken old cycles, and finally begun living up to their considerable potential.
Last month, Gloria joined her children Rachaun Wilkins and Darrian Sampson in graduating from Lincoln Land Community College. And this Saturday, Rachaun's daughter Shadá Donaldson and Gloria's foster daughter Dominique Pickins will both graduate from Southeast High School. Gloria is already a full-time student at the University of Illinois at Springfield, pursuing a degree in legal studies; the other four graduates in the family will either start or resume their studies in the fall.
If there were such a thing as credit for life experience, they would all be close to earning their Ph.D's. Gloria was raised by her grandparents in Jackson, Tennessee, where she dropped out of school at age 15 due to the birth of Rachaun. "I got a job, got more babies, still looking for love in all the wrong places," Gloria recalls. Somewhere along the way, she earned her GED, but never made it to college. Seeking a more exciting lifestyle, she moved to Champaign, where her parents lived, and "went the whole gamut of the drug scene." Her children slid so far down her priority list that she didn't even realize she had lost them. "At one time, you couldn't know what a failure I felt like as a mother," she says.
For a while, Rachaun seemed to be following in Gloria's footsteps. She was pregnant before she reached high school, and had a second child, Shadá, as a sophomore. She tried to stay in school, but it became impossible.
"Hauling two kids on the bus, trying to do homework, and trying to keep them away from the madness that was going on with my mom . . . it was too much," Rachaun recalls. When she dropped out of school, she immediately went to court seeking permission to take her GED exam and to be granted emancipation from her mother. She tried community college, but couldn't stick with it. "I ended up living in the projects, collecting public aid," she says. "But I've always wanted to learn. I've been trying all along."
When her life finally achieved some stability--with six kids and a solid marriage that has lasted nine years already--Rachaun was ready to resume her education. This time, to keep herself motivated, she saved her money for tuition instead of taking out a student loan. "That's how I knew I would be really serious about it--I knew I wouldn't waste my own money," she says. "I've been working part-time, going to school part-time, and taking care of my family full-time." This fall, she plans to attend UIS full-time, working toward her bachelor's degree in psychology. She hopes to be a social worker--a goal she recognizes as a reaction to her upbringing.
"In one of my psychology courses, I did a project on children of addicts, and I learned a lot about myself," Rachaun says. "A lot of children of addicts go into fields where they're helping people, especially helping children. I can't do much for the addict because I've never been an addict. But I have been a child. I know the difficulties they go through."
Gloria is likewise hoping to use her life experience to help others with the same problems. At 50, she is already certified as a substance abuse counselor, and chose legal studies as a major with the goal of finding a way to provide more treatment options for inmates.
Unlike his sisters, Darrian graduated high school on time, but he too soon became a parent and too busy earning a living as an electrician to pursue his education. In fact, when he finished his associate's degree in science, he had no desire to attend graduation ceremonies.
"I wasn't really in a celebratory mood, because I know I probably should be much further along by now," says the 29-year-old, whose "dream job" is to teach high school math and science. "I was willing to just accept my diploma in the mail and continue with the mission, which is to get my bachelor's degree and my master's degree."
But his mother, Gloria, and his sister, Rachaun, kept pestering him to order a cap and gown. "They were just so excited about the whole idea, I realized it is quite a special event," Darrian says.
Rachaun recalls that Darrian--normally a rather sober character--was "smiling ear to ear" as they stood in line to cross the stage at graduation. Gloria--who dismisses her own graduation as "it's about time!"--had tears of joy and pride for her two children. "I know where my choices have led our family. And to rise up above our circumstances and be able to march together, that was awesome. I know that was for God's glory," she says.
For Rachaun, the ceremony was so exciting she barely remembers accepting her diploma. "It was like time stopped," she says. "I just went through the motions, and when I came off the stage Shadá was there giving me flowers."
Everyone points to Shadá with special pride as the first female to graduate on time and "without a baby"--thus breaking a cycle that has derailed the educational dreams of other females in the family. They're also proud of Dominique, who is graduating on time, even as the mother of a toddler. "I guess times are different. I have more resources," Dominique says. "This was a decision I chose to make: not to give up when I had my baby. I knew a GED wouldn't satisfy me."
These graduations highlight an unusually eventful year for the family. Two of the boys--Rachaun's son Chris Lipscomb and Dominique's brother Korey Donaldson--were severely injured while riding bikes a few months ago when a drunk driver hit them, throwing Korey through the windshield and Chris 10 feet into the air. Gloria, Rachaun, Shadá, and Dominique all missed days of school in order to stay with the boys in the hospital. Chris and Korey are both on the road to full recovery.