Homeless to college experience inspires charity to help at-risk youth

Young, Gifted & Black Series

By Taki S. Raton

Orayne Williams

School became his savior. In his words, it was “the only thing I had,” and his only way out.

He is young, gifted and Black. Orayne Williams who was once homeless and living in shelters on the streets of New York completed his freshman year at Manhattanville College in Westchester County.

The first year college student had no trouble settling into dorm life at Manhattanville and finished his freshman year in 2011 with a 3.6 grade point average.

“It’s much nicer than a shelter,” he says.

Before returning to college for his sophomore year that fall, the visionary Orayne would build upon his homeless to college experiences and share lessons learned with other at-risk youth consigned to life on the streets of New York.

During that 2011 summer, Orayne worked feverishly to get his own charity nonprofit Progressive People Movement (PPM) off the ground to aid needy high school students, like himself, to get into college.

According to a web descriptor, the mission of PPM is to “provide an outlet for at-risk youth through various services which they do not have easy access to or which is not being provided to them in abundance.

“The site adds that the program’s goal is to “create self-dependent youth who are equipped to face the perils of life.”

PPM is staffed by young volunteers with similar experiences who can relate to and understand such challenges faced by today’s youth.

The volunteers are supported by mentors who train them to become future mentors themselves.

As shared by Kathleen Toohill in her August 11, 2011 Nextgen Journal posting, the special focus of PPM is on young Black males.

It is the founder’s vision that PPM will help to strengthen communication, decision making and goal setting skills. Says Williams in Toohill:

“PPM’s goal is to provide these youth the skills they need to succeed and will empower these youths to use these skills as tools to access and analyze information given to them so they can make educated decisions about life choices.”

NEWSONE For Black America on July 25, 2011 reveals that Orayne raised $3,000 to help pay for transportation and materials, but his plan is to raise “10 times that much.”

Oryane was born into poverty in Kingston, Jamaica.

According to writer Lisa Flam in a June 15, 2010 AOL News account, he lived without electricity or water and scavenged for food in the streets.

At the age of 12, Flam writes that he “was sent with just the clothes he was wearing to live with relatives in Florida.

But he said in AOL, “They dealt drugs and abused him.”

School became his refuge and he would spend as much time there as possible.

Flam discloses that Orayne was reunited with his homeless mother and infant half-sister in the New York City borough of Brooklyn in 2007. They lived in shelters and motels, at times sharing a single bed. But things didn’t work out.

“It was impossible to focus on school,” as quoted in AOL. “My mom and I fought like crazy.”

As noted in further published accounts, his mom kicked him out in November.

A social worker found him a bed in a shelter for young men in Brooklyn where apparently he lived until going to college.

He gets up for school at 5:30 a.m., studies on his bed as he had no desk. As cited in Flam: “When I tell people I’m homeless, they’re surprised.

Most of the kids at my school still don’t know.” A bag lunch for his school day was provided by the homeless shelter. He says of his plight that, “I’ve been through hell. School is my way out.”

During those academic years from the time he was separated from his family in November of 2007 through his senior year in 2010, Orayne maintained a 4.00 average.

His GPA scores qualified him for three advanced placement classes and was looking forward to college.

With the assistance of Wayne Harris, Orayne was able to apply to college and prepare papers for financial aid. Harris works in the Education Department’s Office for students in Temporary Housing and offered the then 18- year-old senior use of his phones and computer.

“It’s always been amazing how he used his stumbling blocks and turned them into stepping stones,” said Harris in a July 25 2011 Daily News feature on Orayne.

The New York Daily News first published a story on Orayne in June of 2010.

As reported by Toohill, Daily News readers donated $15,000 in scholarship money to the Bedford Academy senior.

His original plan was to enroll in the two-year Sullivan County Community College in Upstate New York in the fall of 2010, but as noted in Toohill, the president of Manhattanville College encouraged him to apply at the Westchester campus after reading his story.

Writes Liza Eckert in FG/ CH News, Manhattanville provided Orayne with $47,000 per year in scholarship money to cover all of his expenses.

During his freshman year, he signed up for 18 credits and earned a 3.6 grade point average with a listed major in biology.

“I have a lot of support on campus and people who believe in me,” says Orayne as cited in Toohill. “I have a good circle of friends,” he adds.

Cluny Lavache, Bedford Academy assistant principal, says of Orayne that it is his positive attitude that has inspired people to help him. “He touches your heart,” she said.

Sources reveal that he plans to continue his work upon graduating from Manhattanville and looks forward to pursuing his PhD.

Those interested in supporting Orayne’s Progressive People Movement are urged to contact ppmovement@gmail.com.