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Quick and Dirty

Hard Times

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 4/5/2006

Biah Kun was just 15 years old in 1996 when she witnessed the brutal murder of her mother, father, and three sisters via machete while she hid in a nearby closet. Kun’s family were casualties of Liberia’s civil war, and her dreams of getting an education and having a normal life died with her family that day.

But Kun’s second chance came in the form of a program with the same name. After moving to the United States in 1998 she was able to attend her first year of Delaware State University free of charge thanks to the Second Chance Program. Owings Mills-based Second Chance has helped students with low GPAs—due to extreme hardship such as drug-addicted parents, unexpected deaths of parents, or homelessness—attend college. The program was created in 1996 by syndicated USA Today columnist and author DeWayne Wickham, who wrote the book Woodholme: A Black Man’s Story of Growing Up Alone decades after both of his parents were killed in a murder/suicide.

Over the 10 years since its founding, Second Chance has helped 36 kids from Maryland, Washington, Delaware, and Virginia attend their first year of college, all expenses paid. In most cases, the program gave students additional help after that first year—including clothes and incidentals.

“Our kids were the kids who were being missed,” Wickham says. “They couldn’t get into colleges because of their grades, and they couldn’t get grants and loans because they weren’t academically qualified.”

Funded in the past largely through private fundraising and corporate contributions from Coors, Nestlé USA, and DaimlerChrysler, Wickham says the program has now “run out of gas” due to fading financing. He says he wants to end the program on a good note, focusing on the accomplishments of the students.

For Second Chance, accomplishment has come in the form of each of the students completing at least his or her first year of college. Wickham says all of these kids are success stories.

“These kids were headed to a life of dependency,” he says. Even with just a year of college under their belts, “they have gone out into the world of work. And instead of drawing on our tax system, they are contributing to it.”

For Kun, success came in the form of graduating from Delaware State in 2005 and becoming a nurse at Washington Hospital Center in D.C. She plans to get her graduate degree and later open a clinic in Liberia. But now her success is bittersweet.

“I think if [this program] was going to continue, a lot more young people would be able to be [helped],” she says. But the closure of the program, she says, “hits home.”

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