After years of instability, abandonment, abuse and homelessness, Kieu-thu Kim Tran’s life hit bottom during her junior year at Dominion High School in Sterling. Living with the latest in a series of unstable relatives had become unbearable, she said, so she took her belongings and walked out, not knowing where she would go.
A year later, Tran is thriving, thanks to a high school community that rallied around her. An 18-year-old senior at Dominion, she is a member of the National Honor Society and active in student government, and she participates in school leadership and mentoring programs. In November, the Children’s Defense Fund named Tran as one of five winners of Beat the Odds scholarships, which honor high school students from the Washington area who have overcome adversity, demonstrated academic excellence and given back to their communities. The award includes a $10,000 scholarship.
Now, as she awaits word on college acceptances, she finally has a stable place to live. The school, she said, might have saved her life.
“I don’t know if I’d still be alive right now if it wasn’t for their help,” Tran said. “Because there are times when I wanted to give up. And I can’t, because I have everyone lifting me up.”
Dominion teacher Scott Russell offered Tran a place to stay, and the school notified Child Protective Services about her living situation, guidance counselor Ashley Tucker said. Other teachers and school staff members gave her gift baskets, clothes and money for shoes, school officials said.
“Kim’s living situation was bad before, but it became nonexistent” during her junior year, Tucker said. “She literally was at the point where she was going to be out on the street. We basically sent out an SOS saying, ‘She needs a place to stay for a while.’ ”
In June, Tran moved in with Russell, his wife and four children, the youngest of whom is a classmate of Tran’s.
“I love it. It’s awesome,” Tran said. “I have a bed, I get fed, and it’s really fun. It’s a huge family, so there’s lots and lots going on.”
Russell downplayed his role in helping Tran find stability. “It’s just like going from four kids to five kids,” he said, adding that they’re “just trying to get her into college.”
College seemed to be an impossible dream for Tran as she was growing up in Sterling. Her mother was institutionalized with mental illness after incidents of violent domestic abuse, and Tran never had a relationship with her father, she said. Other than three years when she was living with her mother, after her release from a mental hospital, she mostly lived with aunts, uncles and cousins.
Shortly after enrolling as a sophomore at Dominion, Tran told Tucker about her tenuous living situation.
“We have a particularly strong school community here, so the teachers were immediately saying, ‘Can we get her gift cards, what should we do?’ ” Tucker said. “It’s a schoolwide effort, and all of her team teachers every year take care of her.”
Tran said that moving in with Russell’s family gave her the stability she needed to get through her senior year.
“It takes a village, and that’s what’s been happening,” Russell said. “People are always there to help with the little things. They are willing to help her to advance, and that’s what’s really thrilling.”
Tran qualifies for assistance under the McKinney Vento Act, a federal law that helps students who do not have a stable living environment, school officials said. The law allows eligible students to stay in one school even if they move from one attendance zone to another, so they can have academic continuity. It helps students establish residency for in-state college tuition and can also help students get financial aid, Tucker said.
“She does as much as she can for herself, despite her circumstances,” Tucker said, adding that Tran has two part-time jobs. “She works enough that she can buy a lot of things for herself. She’s certainly not one to sit back and take the handouts.”
Tran hopes to attend Virginia Tech or Christopher Newport University. She said her best subject is math. She also likes biology but has not decided what subject will be her major or what she will do after college.
Tucker said that Tran would make an excellent counselor. “I know that Kim is going to put herself in the position of giving back,” she said. “She is so appreciative of the assistance she has received.”
Tran mentors students at Dominion in addition to Sugarland and Meadowland elementary schools.
“It’s definitely a pleasure to help out other students who need help,” she said. “Yesterday I mentored a kid . . . he was getting bullied, and we were trying to figure out a way to stop it.”
She said that last year she was able to help a student who had some experiences similar to hers, “but in a more innocent way. And I was able to give her advice, tell her how to stay calm, how to stay positive. I talked to her every week so she would always keep me updated,” Tran said.
“She’s safe now.”