Lijjon DeSilva had a secret.
HOUSTON — He kept it at night, when he could see the stars in the sky as he went to bed in a parking lot. He kept it during the day, when he attended classes at Lee High School in Houston.
DeSilva at first didn’t tell school administrators and teachers that he had been homeless for three years — since he was 15 — after he bounced around different relatives’ homes. His mom died when he was 5 and he grew up in poverty.
But when a school social worker began to break the ice, DeSilva’s life took a turn. The student, who slept on buses and in parks, had been struggling to stay in the school and was unable to come up with residency documents.
“I didn’t trust her at first. I thought she was with the school trying to ask why I had missing documents, but she kept chasing me just trying to figure out what was going on and how she could help. Once I finally opened up to her, things started to change for the better,” said DeSilva.
The student, now 20, flourished and graduated in late May among the top of his class. He won a full scholarship to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Classes start in mid-September.
Jessica Smith, who works as a project manager with the nonprofit Communities in Schools, a dropout prevention organization, pushed for DeSilva to be allowed to stay in the school and get his diploma. She got the support of fellow teachers and Principal Jonathan Trinh.
“When we first met, I knew he was an amazing, bright college-bound kid,” Smith told CNN. “I see this type of stuff every day, and all it takes is one person to help these kids make a better future for themselves…. I knew I had to do that for him,” said Smith.
Trinh reached into his own pocket to pay for DeSilva to live in an extended-stay hotel for 30 days and Smith turned to social media to ask friends to put the student up as he completed his studies.
“Everyone needs help. Everyone needs love,” DeSilva told the Houston Independent School District in a video about his accomplishments.
The graduate’s story begins in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, where he grew up poor. He lived in several locations with relatives. At 14, he said, he was sent to briefly live in Africa because his father didn’t want to care for him.
Once his visa expired, he moved to Houston to live with his cousins. He said they made him quit school and get a job. “When I started questioning them on where my money was going they got angry, called me disrespectful and kicked me out. I only needed the money for new clothes and food. Everything I had was old and worn out,” DeSilva said.
So at 15, he found himself alone. But DeSilva believed the experience was preparing him for something greater.
“I wanted to be able to live like a normal kid. But I slept at parks. My favorite was sleeping in parking lots because I could see the stars in the sky,” DeSilva told CNN.
At Lee High School, he slowly began to trust people trying to help him. Now, DeSilva considers Smith and Trinh to be mother and father figures.
“Once he (DeSilva) was able to recollect himself, he began to blossom,” Smith said. “He didn’t have to worry about his safety and was able to sleep and eat in a warm environment. He was finally able to be a normal teenager.”
On May 27, DeSilva graduated among the top of his class with a 3.67 GPA. The Posse Foundation provided him a full scholarship for college, said Eric Sieger, director of media relations at Carleton College, a small, private liberal arts school.
Smith started a crowdfunding site to raise money so that the graduate can cover transportation costs to college, buy a laptop and furnish his dorm. And he could use some warm clothes for the harsh Minnesota winters. So far, $23,000 has been raised.
DeSilva feels blessed.
“With my type of life, I thought I would die,” he said. “But, I wasn’t going to let my situation hold me back. I always wanted a purpose and I feel like I have found it. Once I won the scholarship I truly realized I can do this. My impossible turned into ‘I’m possible.'”