Donnie Alford owns his past with a perspective on where he comes from, where he is today and why it all matters that seems mature beyond his 18 years. The Wyoming High School senior, who graduated June 1, tells his story with the precision and detail of a writer, stating his intent to reach out to struggling young people.
“I kind of want to tell you everything, because I want to be an inspiration for kids not to give up,” he said as he began our interview.
In true autobiographer form, he starts at the beginning: “I was born Sept. 4, 1998.”
Donnie’s family lived on the South Side of Chicago in the Robert Taylor projects, public housing that was notorious for drugs, gangs and violence. “You couldn’t sit above a certain level in the house because you had to be afraid of stray bullets that would fly in the home,” he said. “We always tried to stay below couch-level because it was dangerous.”
Yet many residents, including his family, had few other options. “When I was 5 or 6 years old, they tore down all the the project housing in Chicago, which forced thousands and thousands of mostly African-Americans to be homeless.”
For Donnie, that piece of Chicago history was real life. After a few nights sleeping in an old Volkswagen, he joined his relatives– 14 people total – in a three-bedroom apartment where he lived for the next two years.
“My bedroom wasn’t a bedroom; it was a really big closet. I used my clothes as a bed. I didn’t get my own mattress until I was in fourth grade.”
Moving to Grand Rapids
Donnie’s mother, Shawntay Hill, left Chicago for Grand Rapids to search for work and a new place to live. She came back for Donnie when he was almost 9 years old.
Life in Grand Rapids was “me and my mom against the world,” he said. Fortunately, Donnie found happiness on the basketball court.
“Basketball is my passion; it’s my life,” he said. “Basketball saved me from some rough times. If it wasn’t for basketball, quite honestly, I would probably be doing what the majority of kids that come from my situation do -– the gang and drug life.
“Basketball was like a safe haven. When I was on the court all my problems would disappear for those split seconds when the ball was in my hand.”
But that passion didn’t yet transfer to the classroom, because Donnie didn’t see the point of trying. By then, his father was serving a more than 20-year prison sentence. “My father gets out of prison when I am 24 years old,” he said. “I can’t remember a moment when my father was free.
“I didn’t care about school because, why would I? I didn’t think I was going to be anything in my life.”
When Donnie was 10, his mother gave birth to a boy, Armontae, and Donnie soon embraced the idea of becoming a big brother. But when the baby was just two months old, Donnie’s mother had a stroke and a heart attack, shaking the little stability he had in his life.
Shawntay spent the next seven years, from age 31 to 38, in a near vegetative state at a nursing home, never relearning to walk or talk. Her absence left a huge void in Donnie’s life.
“My mom was like my best friend. Growing up, I was an only child. We did everything together. She was the one who taught me to play basketball.”
With his mom in the hospital, Donnie spent the next few years living with aunts in Grand Rapids and Wyoming, content to get by with D’s in school.
‘I don’t want to be average anymore. I want to be great.’ — Donnie Alford, student athlete
Teacher Kellie Self could see the potential Donnie had in her sixth-grade class, even though he battled frustration and anger.
“I remember him being a brilliant kid who was an incredible writer,” she said. “I knew how capable he was, and that he could accomplish anything he put his mind to. However, I don’t necessarily think he believed that himself yet.
“Honestly, I didn’t treat him any differently than I treat any of my other students, but he responded differently to my encouragement and nurturing -– he literally thrived from it. I kept telling him he could do anything he wanted, and just how smart I knew he was.”
Self remembers one particularly rough day for Donnie.
“The social worker and I were in the hallway talking with him and she asked him what was wrong. He screamed, ‘I just want to see my mom!’ ‘You want to see your mom? I’ll take you there!’ the counselor replied. He couldn’t believe we could actually do something like that.”
Self ran back to her classroom and grabbed an African violet flower someone had given her and told him to give it to his mother. “I still have the photo of him next to his mom holding the flower, with with a huge smile on his face.”
Enter the Goodsons
Fate twisted Donnie’s freshman year, when he met Stacey and Julian Goodson, foster parents to many children including a good friend of Donnie’s. They took Donnie in when he was almost 16.
“They were always on me about my grades, he said. “It was like a culture change. The first semester I had straight D’s. I finished the second semester with straight B’s.”
Stacey and Julian both reached Donnie in their own ways. “Julian did it with basketball,” Donnie said, but it was much more than that.
“He told me he cared about me and he loved me. I never had a man in my life tell me he loved me. He actually cared about me and wanted me to be great. He didn’t just see me as a kid living in his house. He felt I was his son.”
Julian remembers Donnie coming to them with a fierce sense of independence. But after learning he was part of the family, Donnie grew leaps and bounds as a student and community member.
“One of the biggest things he learned was how to be a part of a family structure and unit,” Julian said. “He showed incredible leadership among his peers and siblings. … It was really just seeing what type of potential he had. He was able to tap into his potential and he found he was good at a lot of things, not just basketball.”
Julian was the male example Donnie needed.
“Growing up I never seen a successful African-American man,” Donnie said. “I didn’t really know what that was. Julian was there to show me African-American men can be successful, because I didn’t believe we could in this world. He showed me we could. He gave me hope.”
Stacey reached him with what seemed to Donnie like super powers.
“Stacey does so much,” he marveled. “She works, coaches sports, comes home, deals with all our problems, cooks dinner and still has time to laugh and be a good mom to all of us. She’s like superwoman. … I have mad love for her.”
The love is mutual.
“I’ve seen him mature a lot, as far as being an older sibling,” Stacey said. “I’ve also seen him mature in his priorities, what they are and what they need to be aligned with as far as academics and so forth.”
For so long, college wasn’t on Donnie’s radar. No one in Donnie’s family had graduated high school since the early 2000s, much less gone to college. But as his grades improved and more opportunities in basketball came his way, that began to change. The Goodsons gave him the opportunity to play travel basketball, and his team won every weekend.
Promises to His Mother
While Donnie began to excel, he remained hopeful that his mother would someday get better. But last year, doctors informed him she was 98 percent brain dead following a major medical setback. At that point, he said, “I realized my mom was never going to be the same again.”
He and relatives made the heart-wrenching decision to pull her off life support. “I watched my mom suffer for seven years. It was quite honestly the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life.
“My mom was a free spirit,” he added. “She loved to have fun, to laugh and talk and joke and dance.”
Shawntay Hill died May 15, 2016, exactly one year before Donnie was interviewed for this story.
“When my mom died, it was surreal. I couldn’t believe it. It was literally like a part of me died. I lost my best friend and my mom at once. I didn’t connect with anyone like I did with my mom.”
He found support at school from his friends and teachers. “The thing I like about Wyoming is it’s like a family.”
Before his mother died, Donnie made some promises to her.
“I promised my mom I will graduate. I would graduate high school and I would go to college and graduate from there. I told her I would play collegiate basketball. I told her I will do it all for her, and so far I have kept every word.”
‘A Poor Kid from the South Side’
To keep his word to his mother, Donnie, a guard for the Wyoming Wolves, had to up his game in a major way. Always an energetic, up-tempo player, he described himself as average overall. But senior year, “Every time I stepped on the court I was one of the best players.” He ended the year as all-conference honorable mention and all-area honorable mention.
He also improved thanks to the Goodsons, both coaches in Wyoming, who gave him access to the gym and weight room during the summer before his senior year.
“I worked out the whole summer and my motivation was my mom.” He got up every day at 7 a.m., and headed to the track for two hours to run the bleachers wearing a 25-pound weighted jacket.
He would go home for breakfast and then head back to the gym. From noon to 2:30 p.m. he was in the weight room and from 2:30 to 6 p.m. he was in the gym. “I would make 2,000 threes a day, 5,000 free throws, I would dribble until my arms were numb. I would do sprints until my feet hurt.”
He was also inspired by varsity boys basketball coach Tom VanderKlay, who demonstrates life skills to help athletes be successful men in the long run, Donnie said.
Donnie has received a scholarship to play basketball next school year at Olivet College, where he plans to major in personal training and physical therapy.
“Sometimes it doesn’t feel real,” he confessed. “At one point I was content with being like everybody else (from similar backgrounds): I’m going to either end up in jail or sell drugs. That’s the only way out. That’s all I knew.
“Who would ever have thought a poor kid from the South Side of Chicago would go on to play college basketball?”
Donnie’s GPA has climbed from a 1.5 his sophomore year to a 2.7. He hopes to end the year close to a 3.0.
He’s looking forward to his next step.
“My plan is to go to Olivet and dominate. I don’t plan on being an average player. I don’t want to be average anymore. I want to be great.”
Donnie said he grateful to many people who have supported him.
“Most of the kids who come from my situation, they don’t get out of Chicago, let alone finish high school and go to college. To be the first college student (from his family) is going to be pretty amazing. I’m going to continue to work hard and make sure I am the first college graduate.
“I’m just blessed.”