Students Rising Above with Wendy Tokuda

(KPIX 5) — Damont Hardnett wears a pressed white shirt, a bow tie and a heartbreaking smile when he reaches his hand out to meet you. He is a mother’s dream – especially an African American single mom who has struggled to raise him right.

As President of the Black Student Union at Santa Clara High School, he reads a script as he co-emcees the Black History Month assembly, but there is no script for what he is trying to do in his own life, for example taking Advanced Placement classes and getting good grades. “Since I was young,” he wondered, ”how would it be like to go to a four-year university? How can I do that? Just dreaming about it and now, its about to become my reality? That is just amazing to me.”

His college counselor, Tina Rainbolt says he is a student leader who does it all. “He comes into classrooms and he’ll do his thing,” she says, and he leaves by saying “have a great day at Santa Clara High”. And it’s just the cutest thing. “

But Rainbolt is one of the few at his school who know how hard it has been for Damont to do so well. His charm is authentic and disarming, but it is also a tool to break down barriers. He consciously works at breaking stereotypes, but his motivation comes from facing some of the very stereotypes at home.

He didn’t tell anyone that his father was in and out of jail. “Telling everyone my father’s in jail, it hurt me and for my friends to know they can bring that up anytime and it could hurt 10 times more,” he says. Instead, he was explain it this way: “he’s taking a break. I haven’t saw him in a while, that’s exactly what I would say.”

One time during an argument with his dad, his mom called the police Damont says he’s not sure exactly why, he thinks there may have been physical violence.

His father left the family, which devastated him.

He watched his mom struggle to support 3 boys, and fights back tears as he describes it. “Sometimes she would (say), how am I going to pay this month’s rent because I spent a lot of money on food this month? Or I spent a lot of money on my PG&E was a little higher? And sometimes she would have to go and ask her friends, “Oh, do you have some money? Can I borrow some money? And it was just so difficult for her…”

He told Tina Rainbolt that dinnertime conversations were painful. “It was always about being in trouble, someone in trouble. Someone going to jail… there was drug use. It was always just not your normal idea of a Norman Rockwell family dinner,” she says, remembering the conversation.

Only 30% of black fathers actually live in the home. But research from both the Pew Institute and the Centers for Disease Control show that, in the house or not, black fathers are just as likely to be involved with their kids as other dads.

But Damont says that wasn’t the case for him and his mom had to work doubly hard: “Because she struggled so much, like immensely and it like, just breaks me down, every time [thinking about it].”

To help her out, when he was 15 and a half years old, Damont went to a job fair early at 5:00 AM to make sure he was first in line. It worked. He first got a job at Great America. Now, he works at Old Navy, 16 hours a week to help his mom with the bills. “Sometimes I just give her money, like. What is this for? It’s for you. Whatever bills you want to put it towards, if you want to spend it for yourself, it’s for you,” he says.

Then, there is uphill challenge of becoming the first in your family to go to 4-year college. It was just a dream in the beginning; there were the years of hard work with no road map at home. Something as basic homework was difficult. He says, “I’m at home and I need help with something, there wasn’t no one that I could like go to and look up to and just can you help me with this. No, I had to do it on my own. I had to be independent.”

And so, he was.

Ironically, he says that may have been what made him who he is. “There’s a strength there, an amazing strength there and I don’t know where it comes from. It’s magic, apparently, says Tina Rainbolt.

Magic, and a lot of leadership.

“I’m really proud of myself. It wasn’t easy. It was not easy at all. But I pushed through it. I strived,” says Damont.

Oh, did we tell you he is Captain of the basketball team and Homecoming King?

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