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Beating The Odds: Finding Strength In Heartbreaking Loss

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Donavan Blagmon just graduated from Thurgood Marshall Public Charter School in Southeast D.C., despite several significant challenges.
Kristen Sorensen/WAMU
Donavan Blagmon just graduated from Thurgood Marshall Public Charter School in Southeast D.C., despite several significant challenges.

Donavan Blagmon says his height — 6'4 — comes from his mother and his laid back cheerful manner from his father. His love of "all things sports" is from both of them.

"Actually my father and mother met through bowling, so they took me out and I go bowling with them all the time. He was my coach in every sport I did whether it was swimming or basketball. They were Redskins fans, both into sports, they just liked to go out and have fun," Blagmon says.

Donavan had older step siblings who were already grown up so he was extremely close to his parents. His mother and father didn't live together but were still close. He felt extremely lucky to have both of them in his life.

"I was glued to them. I have a bunch of friends that don't have their father in their life or was raised by a single mother or father and how hard it is sometimes. Having parents is a great thing for me, getting the opportunity to spend with my mother and father that much, I thought that was amazing," Donavan says.

Life throws a curveball

When he was in the eighth grade, he was playing outside with his friends.

"It was about 10 p.m. and I had curfew because my grandmother didn't want me outside past the street lights being on, so I went in the house. I started eating and then my father’s friends called the house phone and said they were on their way to the hospital because he was having chest pains," he says.

Donavan’s father was in his early 40s.

"I just started crying even before I knew what happened. I was crying and trying to eat my food at the same time and I started choking on my salad because I was crying so hard and that’s when the doctor finally said that my father had suffered from a heart attack and that he died in the car before he even got to the hospital," he says.

It was hard to accept that he could no longer spend time with his dad whenever he wanted.

"It seemed almost like a dream almost. Me and father talked about everything even if I had problems in school I would talk to him about it. If I had problems with defending myself from bullies, I would talk to him about that, girls, money issues, we would play the games on Xbox, we would just be playing on Sundays and stuff and Saturdays. He was my father but he felt more so like my best friend that I could just spend time with and not feel uncomfortable at any time," he says.

Donavan was angry with the world and started acting out in school. Sometimes he couldn't help crying softly in class. He went for months of grief and loss counseling that ended with a camp for children whose parents had died.

"I had never been to a camp before. It was filled with a bunch of other kids from the age of like 4 to the age of 17 and I talked to all different types of kids they were all different races and shapes and sizes I was surprised — even the little kids were able to explain to me what happened to their parents and how they are dealing with it," he says.

At the end of the camp, all the children built little sailboats and attached photos of their parents.

"And we put it in this river and you just let it sail, and then when you let it sail, they say your name on an announcer and they say your parents that you remember and it was just emotional and, just let it go and just let your anger, frustration go with the ship, but you keep your memories," Donavan says. "It felt good to be around people who didn't go to my school, those people didn’t understand what I was going through."

Another sudden blow

Donavan finally felt less alone. He moved in with his mother and they would look at pictures of his father and talk about old memories. He started high school and everything started to look a little bit better. Donavan started hanging out even more with his mother.

"She used to work at Safeway and I used to watch her work or we'd go out or hang out and go to a park or just go bowling. Her chicken was the best chicken I had in my life. She marinated it with some special stuff, she never told me what it was, but it was so good, so every time I would come over there and talk to her I would say ‘mom, will you make me some chicken?’ and she was like ‘yeah, I got you,'" he says.

And then one evening, exactly one year and one month after his father’s death, Donavan came home from school thinking about the laser tag party his mother had planned for him.

"And I walked through the door and my grandmother my aunt and my other aunt were sitting in the living room and I was all happy after school because my birthday was coming up and I knew from the moment I walked in the house I knew something was up. And that’s when they told me sit down and then they explained that my mother was found unconscious in her apartment because she had an aneurysm. I had no idea what an aneurysm was and I had them explain it to me, it’s like a blood clot in your brain," he says.

He prayed for a positive outcome.

"I started crying that night and went to sleep think like I didn't want to go thought the same thing that I went through with my father, just crying just asking God please don't take my mother," he says.

Donavan’s mother died the next day. It seemed like almost overnight he went from a child whose two parents doted on him to one of the almost 6,000 children in D.C. whose grandparents are raising them. Donavan started to attend church regularly.

"And I learned through church, God has a time when he wants to take people. So I started to believe that him taking my parents maybe was a part of his plan for me," he says.

School also became a refuge. He especially likes subjects with concrete outcomes.

"My favorite subject is actually, I have two: math and science," Donavan says. "I like science because I learn how stuff works in the world like in physics we learned a lot of stuff like how lights and batteries work and I thought it was fascinating to find out all that new information and math I like math."

He didn’t tell classmates both his parents had died — he didn't want to be different.

Because every time I would tell somebody, the girls always start crying and the boys say 'sorry to hear that,'" he says. "I know I had some stuff happen to me, but I am still moving forward. I didn't feel like a special person I felt like I am a kid like everybody else."

Gaining strength from loss

Donavan is gentle and calm but he says applying to colleges was stressful.

"The deadlines and projects, no one reminded me. I didn't have parents at home to help me and my grandmother, she didn't know what was going on in school and I would try to explain stuff to her but she didn't know so it was just me — that was it. I don't have parents to rely on because I don't have the money to fail and go to do another semester so I realize that if I am messing up a class it is my responsibility to go the professor and talk to him or her and realize what I am doing wrong or how to fix my grades and do the work myself," he says.

Donavan says he has plenty of extended family support, but on his graduation day, he thought about his parents a lot. How his mother would have cried, and how his father would probably have cried, as well, even as they both burst with pride. He says they were his main motivation.

"I think my parents' death actually pushed me to do better than if they were still alive. Even though that sounds awkward, it gives me more of a motivation to realize I can’t fail in high school because I can't afford to not go to college because I know it would disappoint because I made a promise with them that I would go to college," he says.

And he’s going to keep that promise. Donavan is going to St. Johns University in New York to study sports management. And he’s going to take along a poster he made after his father died to hang over his bed. It’s a poster he’s looked at every day for years. It reads "I can do it."

Kristen Sorensen contributed to this report.

These reports are part of American Graduate — Let's Make It Happen! — a public media initiative to address the dropout crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."

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