Through Homelessness and Hardship, Northview Graduate Did What He Had to Do

Editor’s note: This is the sixth of a series about students who have had to overcome unusual challenges and hardships to graduate this spring.

Randy McCant had spent a fun July 4 weekend at a friend’s cottage when he came home to the bad news. His grandmother, Anna Murray Mitchell, had died of a heart attack at age 48. With her went some of Randy’s desire to improve his circumstances.

After all, his grandmother was the rock of the household in which he and his mother also lived. She was a woodworker who could do the work of four people. And yet in the space of a weekend, she was gone.

“What’s the point of busting your butt on a daily basis?” Randy remembers wondering at the time. “It’s just going to kill you at an early age.”

His grandmother’s death sent the family into a cycle of homelessness. They moved more than a dozen times in three years, bouncing from one place to the next — friends’ couches, hotels, homeless shelters. They lived in a car for a while, running the engine to keep warm in cold weather.

And yet today Randy is ready to graduate from Northview’s East Campus High School, an alternative program. He has gotten a trial run at working for a plumbing firm. He talks of having a family one day.

Ask him how he got from there to here and Randy replies simply, “I overcame because I needed to.”

Meeting Adversity Head-On

A big part of his overcoming an impoverished and transient home life is a determination to meet challenges head-on, says his mother, Melissa Dunn.

“He didn’t let any of it bring him down,” Dunn says. “It made him stronger and made him strive harder.

“He knows no matter what you get dealt, you can always overcome it. You’ve got to look beyond the storm. There’s a rainbow somewhere.”

Her sentiments echo Randy’s when he sizes up the adversity he’s faced.

“The only thing you can do is take one small stride at a time and you’ll eventually get there,” he says, with a quiet maturity beyond his 18 years.

He applied that bulldog philosophy while out of school for more than a year, helping support his family financially and being a father figure to his younger brother Ryan. He cooked and cleaned while his divorced mother worked as a custodian at Van Andel Arena.

“I did what I had to do so my mom could keep a roof over her head,” Randy says of the time following his grandmother’s death in 2008. “Somebody had to be strong in the family.”

He matter-of-factly lists the many schools he attended in middle school while he and his mother were “bouncing from doorstep to doorstep.” Comstock Park, Zeeland, Lake Odessa, Jenison, Dorr and Grand Rapids: All were home for a while, including living with his father at times.

Eventually he dropped out of school altogether, missing part of seventh grade and what should have been eighth. His mother says she was in a homeless shelter for part of that time and could not enroll him because she could not show proof of residency in any district.

That all changed in 2011, when she established a home with a boyfriend and Randy enrolled in Northview East Campus High School. “That’s when Randy just started excelling,” she says.

Hard Work Yields Huge Gains

His record at East Campus bears her out. He completed four years’ worth of credits in three, boosted his reading scores from fifth-grade level to 12th-advanced and improved his writing from basic to college readiness, according to the school. His GPA heading to graduation was 3.66.

What made the difference?  A stable home for one thing, Randy says: “There wasn’t everything else running through my mind. I could sit down and focus on school.”

Then there was the school itself, home to 120 students by day and about 40 at night. Students do all their work at school, helped by teachers who tailor lessons and remediation to fill gaps in their learning. Randy loved it.

“We’re kind of like a little family,” says Randy, sitting in one of the mobile classroom buildings at 3801 East Beltline Ave. NE. “All the teachers and staff love you and will bend over backwards to help you. They don’t want to see you fail.”

True enough, says Jamie Dorsey, his math teacher. But it’s also true that Randy rode three buses for an hour to get to school by 7:40 a.m., had near-perfect attendance and worked diligently to get A’s in algebra I and geometry, Dorsey points out. He made “huge gains” to become one of her top students, she says.

“His drive is he has been in the lowest of the lowest positions in life,” Dorsey adds. “He knows that’s not what he wants.”

Building a Better Future

Randy also took classes at night to catch up on credits and was helped in math by his uncle, Mike Johnson, a car mechanic. If Randy grew frustrated Uncle Mike would make him run around the apartment building to blow off steam.

Randy recently was hired on a trial basis as a plumber, working 50 hours the first week. He figures it could be a good job long-term: “If I end up having kids later, I know I can have the money to support them and not make them have the same life I had.”

“He’s going at the job the same way he went at school, so I think he should be able to handle it,” his mother says.

As he looks forward to graduating on June 2, Randy looks back with gratitude on the rough road he took to get there.

“I’m happy and I’m relieved because I can do what my parents never did, and that’s graduate,” he says. “It was a lot of work, it was a lot of effort, but in the long run it’s worth it.”

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Northview East Campus High School

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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