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'Spellbound' Star

Susan Notes:

After reading the Washington Post story below 3 1/2 years ago, I contacted the reporter, who put me in touch with Pam Jones, the person who stepped up and helped Ashley White turn her life around. Pam was cautious, and I sent books to Ashley's daughter Dashayla and a small cash donation to Ashley through her. Ashley responded with a wonderful thank you letter. A real letter will win me over every time.

I got the impression that Pam was offering very wise and specific guidance to help Ashley get her life on track. Teaching her to budget and so on. Her guidance continues to this day, and she has stayed in touch with those of us who contacted her 3 1/2 years ago.

Fast forward to January 2008.

Ashley was named as 2nd runner-up in the "Beating the Odds" award given by the National Head Start Association, equivalent to the Academy Awards in the Head Start community.

Ashley will graduate from Howard Collage in May, with hopes to go on for a graduate degree. She has done this while working the whole time. Her daughter Dashayla is thriving. To quote from a letter I just received from the Edward C. Mazique Parent Child Center of the District of Columbia, "Not having to sacrifice her education has put [Ashley] on a path where the future is bright. She is an amazing young woman who is committed to being an exemplary student, a good mother, and a responsible citizen. She is also doing what she can to assist other teenagers in their personal journey."

It is good to have a positive story in these dark times in which we live.

Go to the Ashley T. White website and you can learn more about Ashley--and learn that Pam Jones is a remarkable woman herself:

Note from Pamela Jones

Ashley T. White, an exceptional young woman, surmounted the challenges of poverty and teen pregnancy and now is on the verge of completing her college education and embarking on a career. But Ashley is now facing a critical decision on whether she can continue her college courses as a full-time student. A group of her friends are helping her with that decision. My story, below, will help you understand why.

âWant to see a movie about a spelling bee?â My girlfriend asked. My husband yawned, gave me a peculiar look, and said âIt really sounds exciting, but I think Iâll pass.â And thatâs why, one Saturday afternoon in 2003 âhanging out with a girlfriend- I first saw Ashley T. White - one of the 8 National Spelling Bee contestants - in the documentary movie âSpellbound.â

Ashley stood out in the movie as a bright, self-assured African American eighth grader, the exceptionally gifted daughter of a single mom scratching out a livelihood for two daughters and herself in one of the Districtâs tough neighborhoods.

The movie left me curious about Ashleyâs life in the 4 years since the documentary was made. I called the film maker who put me in touch with Ashley and we arranged to meet at a café in my neighborhood near a Metro subway stop. From where I sat in the café, I recognized Ashley coming up the Metro escalator, but without the self-assured attitude and the engaging smile I remembered from the movie. As she got to the top of the escalator, though, the smile returned as Ashley looked down at her three-month old daughter Dashayla, and shielded her from the bright sunlight.

As we talked, I soon learned that the eighth-grade Spelling Bee star with aspirations for college and a career was now a teen mom struggling to support herself and her beloved Dashayla. I mentioned how well she had articulated her life goals when she was interviewed in the documentary. âPam,â she said, âI canât remember - I donât even know who that girl was anymore.â

But, Ashley T. White is not the kind of woman to give up. Let me âfast-forwardâ to Ashleyâs life today, and how she got there. She is an outstanding student with a 3.8 Grade Point Average at Howard University, one of the nationsâ most preeminent Historically Black Universities, who will graduate with a degree in Communications in May 2008 if she continues her studies as a full-time student. Her daughter Dashayla spends her day well cared for at a quality child care center run by Mazique Parent Child Center. Mother and daughter - who once lived in a homeless shelter - now live in a one bedroom subsidized apartment. Ashley works part-time at the non-profit corporation where I am Executive Director -- Crittenton Services of Greater Washington, an organization with a legacy of over 120 years of supporting girls and young women to pursue their life goals.
Did Ashley get where she is today on her own? For the most part, yes, it is her tenacity and hard work on a daily basis that keeps her moving toward her goals; but she could not have made it this far without some critical assistance from friends and benefactors.

Washington Post reporter, Jacqueline Salmon, profiled Ashley in a 2004 article and mentioned my connection with Ashley. As soon as the article appeared, I heard from people from all over the country who wanted to provide financial assistance. With their help, Ashley has been able to put food on the table, pay for rent and transportation, meet the needs of an active toddler, now 4 year-old daughter and, with careful budgeting - afford her tuition (with Pell Grants, partial scholarships and student loans) and college textbooks. Some of that financial support continues, but it has dwindled with time and now, Ashleyâs ability to complete her degree and realize her career goals is seriously jeopardized.

I wish I had the writing skill to capture Ashleyâs character and achievements in this letter â but, then again, I donât think thatâs even possible on the printed page. So, âpictures being worth a thousand wordsâ and all of that, Iâm asking you to take a look at this Web site which introduces you to Ashleyâs day-to-day life as she balances the efforts of full-time student, full-time mother, and part-time employee.

The web site originated with a group of us who simply identify ourselves as âAshleyâs friends.â If people want to contribute towards Ashleyâs success, we guarantee that the contributions will be protected and used wisely. However, our tiny volunteer group is not an organized charity or foundation, or anything formal like that. So, all contributions we receive are paid to the Edward C. Mazique Parent Child Center, a well respected non-profit that has been a part of Ashleyâs life since 2003. They manage the funds and give Ashley financial guidance as part of their mission and do not charge an administration fee. Our group of âAshleyâs friendsâ tracks the funds and assists with such things as sending contributors the forms necessary to establish charitable deductions for tax purposes. We do not share the names of the contributors and there are no outside âfund raising mail lists,â etc.

One of the reasons I know that supporting Ashley is so worthwhile is that she and I share the experience of being teen moms. When my daughter was born forty years ago, I donât think there were any statistics kept about the difficulties teen moms face in obtaining a college education and becoming productive members of our society. We have those statistics now, though, and I think you will find one of them compelling: fewer than two-percent of teen mothers ever achieve a college degree. Thatâs why Ashleyâs friends think itâs so important to make Ashley an exception to that alarming statistic. I hope you will think so, too.

Funny thing: I don't see the Melinda & Bill Gates Foundation as a donor. Nor the Broad Foundation. Just little people who believe in helping one young woman.

'Spellbound' Star Struggles for Happier Ending
'99 D.C. Bee Champ Works to Win Again

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post
June 4, 2004

In the ballroom of Washington's Grand Hyatt Hotel, hundreds of children sat uneasily Wednesday afternoon with huge numbered signs hanging around their necks. One by one, under the glare of television lights and the gaze of tense parents, they approached the microphone and began to spell, letters spilling from their lips and arranging themselves into the words they have spent countless hours memorizing: lenitive, equipollent, polemoscope, verbigeration.

Across the Anacostia River, in her sparsely furnished apartment, a contestant from a previous Scripps National Spelling Bee -- 18-year-old Ashley White -- arrived home from her job as a salesclerk, having just picked up her 10-month-old daughter from day care. White was tired, the baby fussy. Out their window, buses growled by on Minnesota Avenue SE.

Five years after winning the D.C. bee and surviving several rounds of the national finals, White was warming pureed peas and remembering the achievement that won her a featured spot in the Oscar-nominated documentary "Spellbound."

"I would not have imagined that my life would be like this," she said softly.

But in part because of the bee, "like this" is a lot better than it used to be.

Last year, Pam Jones, a nonprofit marketing consultant who saw the movie and wanted to do something for this bright, ambitious girl from a poor family, found White staying with a series of relatives and friends shortly after the baby's birth and rallied other viewers to her cause. While they contributed money for diapers and food, Jones coached her through an application to Howard University.

With that boost, White again marshaled the skills that got her to the bee -- "I was always a go-getter," she said. She found subsidized day care for her daughter, started classes at Howard in January, moved to a shelter for homeless teenagers and then rented an apartment in a two-year transitional program for single mothers. Between semesters, she is working full time in a clothing store.

Though it isn't what she imagined when she was a 13-year-old Hine Middle School speller with a photographic memory and dreams of being an obstetrician, she is less a stranger to herself and the girl she was. "I'll have a job that pays well and I will love my profession and I'll have a house, and whenever my mother or family member needs me, I'll be there for them," she tells an interviewer in the movie, before the finals.

Ten million children competed in spelling competitions across the country this year. This week, a record 265 finalists and their families descended on the Hyatt for the three-day Scripps National Spelling Bee, which ended yesterday with the crowning of the national champion. David Tidmarsh, 14, an eighth-grader from South Bend, Ind., won when he spelled "autochthonous," an adjective used to describe aboriginal flora or fauna.

Organizers attribute the bee's soaring popularity in part to "Spellbound," which was released last year. The documentary followed eight young contestants as they made their way to the 1999 finals -- among them Ashley White, who won the citywide competition that year by spelling "plaque." The Inquirer, a weekly newspaper that sponsors the D.C. bee, recommended her to the moviemakers, and producer Sean Welch said she impressed his crew immediately.

"She was a girl who did not have the same opportunities or same resources as some of the other kids who compete," he said. "Yet it was undaunting to her. She continued undeterred. She realized that by applying herself to the monumental task of spelling, it would not only help her in the immediate competition but . . . throughout her life."

Ashley, whose intellectual hunger caught her teachers' eyes early, spent four years aiming at the city title, studying weekends and after school and carrying the 4,000-word official bee spelling booklet wherever she went. The movie follows her to the third round of the national finals, where she was knocked out by "ecclesiastical," competing against some kids whose parents could afford to hire them spelling coaches and language tutors.

Jones, 54, saw "Spellbound" at a Dupont Circle theater and was taken with her. "There was something about her that said, 'I've got a lot of odds against me, but I'm going to overcome them,' " Jones recalled. She said she got to wondering where Ashley was in her life and whether she had been able to move toward her goals.

"My original thought was that she at least needed mentors, women in D.C. who are doing things with their lives," Jones said. But when she finally met the girl she'd seen on the screen, the autumn after her graduation from the School Without Walls, much more than that was needed.

Like her grandmother, mother and several aunts and cousins before her, White was a teenage mother. And despite her love for her daughter, Dashayla, then about 2 months old, she was deeply disappointed in herself.

"I was always someone who wanted to be different -- who wanted to work harder, who wanted to achieve more, who wanted to succeed," she said. Instead, "I was basically repeating my family history of teenaged pregnancy. I felt like a failure because everyone had such high expectations for me and thought that I would be the one who would break the cycle."

She gave up on her college plans. She had moved out of her mother's apartment and was ricocheting among temporary homes with the baby when the movie was released. As it turned out, Jones was not the only viewer who began contacting Welch, asking how they could help the least privileged of the movie's young stars.

In addition to paying for her college application, Welch set up a charitable foundation to aid her and other "Spellbound" contestants who needed help paying for college. Via e-mail, Jones and other supporters organized other forms of help.

Inspired by their efforts, White began to rally. She watched "Spellbound" again and was struck, she said, by the determined girl she had been. "I was strong. I had a lot of self-confidence. I was hungry for education and to be victorious," she said. "From that instant, I changed. . . . I realized that the me being discouraged -- that wasn't me."

She took six courses at Howard last semester and made the dean's list with a 3.8 average -- studying for finals in the homeless shelter while caring for Dashayla and waging a telephone campaign to find housing. With a few pieces of furniture donated by SOME (So Others Might Eat), White moved into her one-bedroom apartment in Southeast last week.

She has already assumed $6,000 in student loans and expects to have tens of thousands of dollars in debt before she graduates -- which she fully intends to do despite formidable odds. According to a 1996 study, 1.5 percent of teenage mothers receive their college degrees by the time they are 30.

"In order to achieve something, you have to have the commitment. You have to say, 'I'm going to take the time and focus on this one thing and I'm going to get something out of it,' " she said.

As White was returning from work yesterday and collecting Dashayla, a dramatic duel was being waged at the Grand Hyatt between David Tidmarsh and 13-year-old Akshay Buddiga of Denver, who remained in the hunt despite fainting at the microphone in an earlier round, then scrambling back to his feet to spell "alopecoid" (meaning of or like a fox).

Akshay was finally eliminated when he misspelled "schwarmerei," meaning excessive enthusiasm. David then correctly spelled "autochthonous" and burst into tears when the bee director signaled that he was correct.

In interviews after his victory, David said he had studied up to four hours on weekdays and six hours on weekends and said he had watched "Spellbound" at least 10 times.

Was this bee "as good as Hollywood can make it?" someone asked.

"It's even better," David said.

— Susan Ohanian
Washington Post update


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