Donnie Belcher Smith vividly remembers visiting her mother in prison as a preschooler, talking to her on the telephone behind the thick glass and crying when she had to say goodbye. She lived with her grandmother for six years while her mother served time for an armed robbery related to her addiction to crack cocaine. She was reunited with her mother after her release but life was difficult because her mother couldn’t separate herself from drugs. Donnie had to look out for herself and started working at McDonald’s at the age of 12, pretending to be 14.
That year one of her mother’s boyfriends raped her and left her feeling guilty and ashamed. Her grandmother sent her to a free summer program called Freedom Schools, and it quickly became a refuge and an eye-opener. For the first time she met college students including Black male college students. “My teacher went to Morehouse and to hear him talk about his college experiences, I thought, ‘Hey, this college thing. I want to do that!’” She’d always loved reading and writing, and Freedom Schools encouraged her passion for it. “It was a form of therapy for me to write poetry.” And she began to dream about one day becoming a teacher.
Although she was an A student in Kansas City, she fell behind when she and her mother moved to Minneapolis. School was more demanding, she didn’t have friendsand she struggled to catch up. Writing helped—poetry, journals, journalism—and soon Donnie became an A student again, served as editor of the high school newspaper, and worked at Insight News after school as a writer and editor. She mentored younger students and the dream grew stronger.
She was thrilled, when she went to the CDF-Minnesota office for a Beat the Odds interview, to see the CDF boat logo that had been on her T-shirt in Freedom Schools. Receiving the award was a validation—“I felt like I mattered.” Armed with a bachelor’s degree in education from DePaul University, she has realized her childhood dream and now teaches English at a magnet school in Chicago that counts Michelle Obama as one of its accomplished graduates.
This summer, Donnie Belcher Smith and her husband Che “Rhymefest” Smith, a musician who grew up with Kanye West, launched a nonprofit program called Donda’s House. Named after West’s mother who was an educator, Donda’s House serves disadvantaged children ages 15 to 24 in Chicago. They are currently piloting a music-writing program in a community center in Chicago. They are raising funds to expand to more children and different arts in the coming years. “Free programs like Freedom Schools gave me access to experiences I wouldn’t otherwise have had, and one of my lifelong dreams has been to start my own program.”
At the Black Community Crusade for Children gathering in 2010, she brainstormed with other young leaders and met Michael Tubbs who recently won election to the City Council in Stockton, California. “We’re talking about maybe starting a Donda’s House there.”