Harrison, a senior at Woodlawn High School, asked Hampton a few days before if he could take off May 27 for his graduation. But ultimately, Harrison’s family was unable to attend the event and he didn’t have a ride to the ceremony, which was held at a venue in nearby Birmingham — about an hour’s drive in traffic from his home.
“They did want to go very badly, but sadly, they couldn’t,” Harrison, 18, explained, adding that he is not in touch with his father and his mother works at a day care and couldn’t get the day off to be there.
“I didn’t have a ride, I didn’t have tickets, and it was a plan that I couldn’t put together all the way,” Harrison said.
So he opted to go to Waffle House instead, in the hope that he would still be able to work his usual shift. He explained to his co-workers why he was skipping the ceremony.
His manager jumped into action.
“I said, ‘Go home, get your paperwork, call the school, and we will figure out the rest,’ ” said Hampton, 38, who has worked at the Waffle House for four years. “For me, it was a no-brainer. Graduation is one of those things you get to do once in life, and when you’ve worked all these years going to school to have that moment it’s necessary to be there.”
Plus, he added, “I could see in his eyes that he really wanted to go, and I was going to get him there no matter what. No kid should miss their high school graduation.”
Harrison told the staff that he didn’t have a cap and gown or tickets to the event, since he was at work during the graduation rehearsal, which is where the mandatory items were distributed to students.
But the Waffle House employees were undaunted. Given the limited amount of time before the 3 p.m. ceremony, they decided to divide and conquer.
When the assistant manager of the restaurant — who had the day off — heard about what was going on, she swiftly showed up at the restaurant. One employee drove Harrison to the high school to pick up graduation gear, and another visited a nearby Target to buy a new outfit for him.
Four Waffle House employees chipped in about $40 each for a pair of gray pants, a baby blue dress shirt and tie, and matching gray shoes for Harrison.
“We decided we were going to step in and take care of everything for him so he could really celebrate this day. A couple customers contributed as well,” said Hampton, adding that some patrons overheard what was happening and threw in a few extra dollars on top of their orders. “Within a few hours, we were able to get everything taken care of.”
After stopping at the school to pick up his green and gold cap and gown, Harrison went back to the restaurant to try on his new outfit. When he walked out of the bathroom in the dress clothes, “I felt like the president,” he recalled.
Harrison said he was overwhelmed with appreciation for his co-workers’ collective effort, especially because he’d only worked at the Waffle House for a little more than a month. He now calls them his “work family.”
“My work family is helpful and thoughtful. They make sure everybody around them is okay,” he said. “They are very loving people.”
Harrison is especially grateful to Hampton, he added, for taking charge and ensuring that he didn’t miss the milestone. “He is a leader. He makes sure everybody is at their maximum potential,” he said.
Hampton, a father of three, said he was just doing his job.
“We are one big family at my Waffle House. We are all about supporting our people,” he said.
After Hampton helped Harrison put on his cap and gown, “Timothy immediately lit up.” As did Hampton, who said he felt like “a proud parent.”
Given pandemic restrictions and seat limitations, the Waffle House employees were not permitted inside the graduation ceremony, so they waited in the parking lot to congratulate Harrison after he walked out — with a glowing smile.
“It was most definitely the best day of my life,” he said. “The experience was amazing.”
Although they wished they could have seen him walk across the stage to get his diploma, “we were just proud that he was able to experience that moment to the fullest,” Hampton said.
At the time, the staff didn’t realize that their efforts to help Harrison would spur unexpected opportunities for the new graduate. After faculty members at Lawson State Community College in Birmingham heard about Harrison’s story on the local news, they offered him a full scholarship, as well as books.
“This young man was certainly hard-working and dedicated to the task at hand at Waffle House, and it just showed his perseverance and that he wanted something out of life,” said Cynthia Anthony, the president of Lawson State Community College. “We just wanted to see how Lawson State could help him to further his education and meet his career goals.”
Harrison was elated by the offer. “This is a blessing,” he said. “I’m most excited for the people I’m about to meet and the opportunities that are going to be presented to me.”
Before, college wasn’t in the cards for Harrison because of the cost, he said. He initially planned to continue working at Waffle House for the foreseeable future, and perhaps eventually join the military.
For Hampton, the scholarship was “the crowning moment, because here is a kid who wasn’t even thinking about college, and now, there’s doors opening up that he never even thought about.”
On June 10, Harrison and Hampton toured the college campus together. They chatted with administrators about various programs and housing options. Harrison plans to study business and computer science in the fall.
During the tour, “he tugged at my heart when he told us that this was life-changing for him, and it’s something that is going to give him an opportunity that he would never have,” Anthony said. “As I told Timothy, it takes a village, and at Lawson State we want him to know that we are his village right now.”
Harrison’s proverbial village extends beyond the college, as he’ll also have steadfast support from his Waffle House family.
“I am his full-time mentor,” Hampton said. “I feel really good about what’s about to happen next for him. And I’ll always be there along the way.”
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