I went to Chicago Agricultural High School. It’s known as one of the best high schools in the Chicagoland area. Everyone told me it was an honor and privilege to be there. But for me, every day was a struggle. I was labeled as a misfit who didn't have any direction. My teachers’ attitudes toward me said it all: They felt I wouldn’t amount to anything. Because I had a learning disability, many of them lacked patience with me. Why take the time to work with me when they could just kick me out of class instead? But I still went to school every day. It’s sad. My teachers thought it was hard for them, but it was way more difficult for me. I didn’t understand a lot of the content, I was struggling to retain information that I needed to pass exams and complete homework and I didn’t know who to go to for help. How could I be a productive student with all of that hindering me? It was frustrating. I was discouraged and heartbroken. It got to a point where they just let me coast by, so the school could be done with me—and I could be done with it. I made it to graduation. I walked across the stage, received my diploma—finishing with a 1.3 GPA—and headed to Rust College in Mississippi. I don’t really know how I got accepted to college, but I did.
There I was, starting a new academic journey—with the same baggage I’d always had. Just as soon as I’d arrived, I was placed on academic probation. I was tasked with taking all of the classes that I’d failed in high school. Guess how that turned out. I was kicked out of Rust after my first semester so I headed back to Chicago. I felt defeated. I took a bunch of bad jobs until I finally found one with decent pay. That job completely changed my thinking about education. For a while, I thought, “If I can get a decent-paying job with just a high school diploma then what was the point of needing a college degree?” At that point, I was sold. I would forget all about school and just work my way up in this job. But Ms. McCarthy didn’t accept that plan. Ms. McCarthy was a 65-year-old coworker. She took me under her wing and we talked about everything. We became close because I could tell that she cared about my well-being—I’d never had that before. One day she asked, “How long are you going to be here?” I responded by telling her that I was making good money and nothing in the world would make me quit this job. Ms. McCarthy didn’t want to hear it so she gave me two options: I could either stay there and end up miserable in a dead-end, backbreaking job like her, or I could leave and do something productive with my life. She gave me two months to make a decision. Ms. McCarthy’s words of wisdom weighed on me in those two months. Deep down inside, buried under the resentment, rejection and doubt I’d felt while pursuing an education, remained the desire to learn, be proud of myself and graduate from college. So, I made the decision to leave my job. It cost me everything—I eventually became homeless. But the cost was worth it because I was back in school. And that’s what mattered. In that time, I was taken in by a mentor from church who was heavily invested in my educational journey. He gave me a place to live with two conditions—I couldn’t watch television and I had to read every book in his library.
Three years and 5,000 books later, I became a proud graduate of Governors State University. While working in the school system, I've seen students struggle with the same issues I had as a kid in high school. I saw myself in so many of them and needed to do something before they ended up traveling the same path of hopelessness as me. So I founded
Upworld Inc., a nonprofit organization that serves youth from the ages of 14 to 24. These youth are in juvenile detention centers, foster care and alternative schools—most of them have given up on education for one reason or another. It has been my mission to provide these youth with access to opportunities that for them seem unattainable. I’ve been in their shoes, and what I know is, sometimes it seems like the entire world is against you. But if there’s even one person that supports and believes in you, you can be unstoppable. I, the former misfit, am here for the youth.
Melvin Hayes is the founder and executive director of UpWorld Inc. Having founded other similar programs such as The Global Men’s Leadership at a University, and also The King's Men’s Initiative which is catering to male students. Mr. Hayes designed and implemented community service opportunities, mentoring, academic support, career development, and workshops that promote academic, social and ...