How a kid goes from homeless to high school graduate
When he was a rudderless 14-year-old, skipping school, smoking and drinking, and flirting with following in the footsteps of the drug dealers in his neighborhood, Andre Logan could think back to when life was good.
Even in those days, Andre already had escaped the bad situation he was born into in Waukegan.
"My mom wasn't able to be with me because of drug problems. My dad had a bunch of problems," Andre says now with a malice-free maturity beyond his 18 years. "I still talk to both of them, but they weren't fit for me to grow up with and have a good childhood. My first memories are staying in Maywood with my grandparents."
Lawrence V. Flowers and Arie Flowers managed a bank building and some gas stations and owned a three-bedroom home in the Western suburb. The grandpa, who had cut off three fingers of his left hand while working as a boy in Mississippi, still was a whiz of a mechanic.
"When I was 8 years old, my grandfather taught me to be able to take a radiator out of a Mercedes," remembers Andre, who adds that his grandparents taught him how to handle money, balance a checkbook and cook.
"For the most part they help mold me into who I am today. They installed a lot of morals, and hard work. They really taught me how to survive."
Those survival skills would be tested when Andre was in seventh grade. Arie Flowers died at age 81 with her husband holding her hand.
"It really hit me hard. My grandmother was the one who set standards," Andre says, launching into a quick impression: 'No, don't you do that. You'll get in trouble.' She was on her death bed and she died in front of me. That was really horrific for me."
The horror was just beginning.
His grandfather was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, and unable to handle the flood of relatives who descended upon the home.
"From my viewpoint they were trying to take advantage of what was going on," says Andre. "You know how when a shark smells blood in the water? That's the way it was. There was only so much I could do because I was underage. That really hurt my heart watching them take advantage of him."
The money and the home soon were gone, and Andre and his grandfather moved into a small apartment.
"My grandfather took care of me all my life. I was trying to take care of him," says Andre, who was beginning his freshman year of high school.
"I got a call once that my grandfather was outside and didn't know how to get home," Andre remembers. "Some days it was OK, and sometimes it was unbelievable. There were days I said, 'OK, I've got to stay home.' My grandfather was worth more to me than my education at that time. I put school on a back burner."
When his grandfather finally went to a nursing home, Andre paid rent to his mom from his Social Security benefits to sleep on the couch in her one-bedroom apartment.
"About 9 or 10 at night, she'd say, 'I'm having some friends over. I need you to go out,'" recalls Andre. Only 14, he'd stay with a friend or simply roam the streets until 1 or 2 in the morning.
"Everybody I hung with was older, in their 20s. Some of the people who were helping me out were the same people who were dealing drugs to my mother," Andre remembers. "Man, there was so much. I had to deal with peer pressure from gangs, peer pressure from drugs, drinking. I tried to sell drugs, but I looked around at my community and saw how much pain that caused to families and how it broke up my family. I don't think money is that important over a person."
Already accustomed to walking to the hospital emergency room by himself whenever he had a fever or sore throat, Andre sought mental help.
"I couldn't deal with my mother because I'm having these thoughts of hurting her," Andre told the hospital staff. "I have to break away from this. I have to break this cycle now."
Andre got treated, returned to his mom, then lived with his dad, then a half-sister, then a relative of a relative. Essentially, he was homeless, which was the best thing that could have happened to him.
Attorneys from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless went to bat for him, getting him into schools, helping him with housing and cutting through the red tape.
"I love the organization. They really helped me out," Andre says of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
"He's also been really driven to help himself," adds Beth Cunningham, youth attorney for the homeless agency. "He was never a kid who would take advantage of the situation. He always wanted to go to school, to do well."
In 2008, Illinois schools enrolled 26,238 homeless children, according to Mary Fergus, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.
"Homeless students face a unique set of challenges. We know that it's difficult to focus in the classroom when you do not know when you might get your next meal or where you might sleep," Fergus adds.
"There are those exceptional kids-no matter how difficult it is, they keep jumping over hurdles and moving forward," Cunningham says. "Andre is one of those kids."
Spending an entire year in the same high school and home for the first time, Andre recently went through graduation ceremonies at Round Lake High School, is finishing up a credit this month to earn his diploma, and will attend the College of Lake County in the fall.
"You don't do it by yourself. Other people help," Andre is quick to note.
When his half-sister, Tequila, moved from Vernon Hills last summer, she persuaded Andre to move with her to Round Lake.
"I brought him out here so he could finish his last year of high school," says Tequila, 31, a divorced mom with a 6-year-old son, Aaron. Through her job at another high school, Tequila helped Andre make the college connections he needed.
"If I don't get him on the right path, my future has a chance to get messed up," Tequila says, noting she wants to set a good example for her son. "He looks up to Andre so I have to make sure Andre is able to be looked up to."
Much of the credit for what Andre calls "the best year I ever had in school" goes to the community at Round Lake High School, especially teacher Ken Filas.
"He held me together after my grandfather passed away in November," says Andre, giving the teacher thanks for "staying on me."
"I never gave up on the kid. He needed constant reminders to stay on track, correction for inappropriate behavior, lack of effort, etc., and a pat on the back for a job well done," says Filas, who just finished his 31st year at the school. "In spite of what Andre may think, I didn't treat him any differently than I treat any other student. I didn't do anything special, nor did I go out of my way. I was just, well, his teacher."
Even now, Andre says every "I am a man. I'm 18" moment is tempered by the fact that he still needs help at times. He's confident he'll do well in college this fall and end up an entrepreneur, just like his grandfather.
As bright as his future seems, there's still a part of his past he hasn't been able to overcome.
"The only thing I'm really trying to shake right now is smoking," Andre says of the habit he started at age 14. "That cigarette thing is hard."