Desireé Montgomery

Desiree2

Defeating All Odds

A Foster Child, Desireé Montgomery Graduates Kathleen High as Salutatorian.

Teenagers with Desireé Montgomery’s background often don’t get to wear a cap and gown.

Montgomery is a foster child, an orphan through the double blow of her mother’s death at age 7 and her father’s decision to relinquish the girl and her two sisters to the state several years later. Thrust into the foster-care program, she went through five different living arrangements and three schools at the start of her high school career.

It would be understandable if Montgomery were somewhere Monday afternoon besides The Lakeland Center, where Kathleen High School’s graduating seniors will receive their diplomas. Thirty-six percent of 20-year-olds from Florida’s foster-care program had not yet earned high school degrees in 2007, according to the Department of Children and Families, and 55 percent of 17-year-olds were below the average grade level.

Montgomery will not only be among the graduates on Monday, she’ll be one of the students making a speech. She graduates as Kathleen’s salutatorian, ranking second in a class of about 300 with a grade-point average of 4.241.

“She’s one of these students who comes in your lifetime just once every so often,” said Donna Cross, college and career facilitator at Kathleen. “They just leave footprints all around here. She’s just amazing. From the background she comes from, she could have made a choice not good for her, but instead she decided to make a good choice.”

As the self-effacing Montgomery points out, she’s also lucky. She and her sisters reside at the Florida Baptist Children’s Homes campus in Lakeland, and the facility allows Montgomery – who turned 18 in May – to continue living there until she enters college. Many foster children must find new homes upon turning 18, when the state discontinues payments to foster parents.

That frightful scenario is the focus of Montgomery’s ambitions. As a teen, she helped produce a cookbook intended to raise money toward the creation of a transitional house for foster children who age out of the system at 18. Despite the academic credentials to enter a lucrative profession, Montgomery yearns to become a college and career counselor.

Montgomery, who has an almond-shaped face offset by her dark-rimmed glasses, seems to specialize in defying expectations. While she has every right to be bitter or cynical, she exudes joy and gratitude. She projects poise and maturity and largely avoids the “likes” and “you knows” that pepper so much teenage speech.

Rather than resenting her lost mother, an alcoholic whose drinking caused her early death, Montgomery displays a photo of the woman set in a frame inscribed, “I <0×2665> Mommy.” And while pleased to be separated from her father, who proved so neglectful Montgomery took her sisters from their home to seek state custody, she speaks of his parental failings in unemotional tones and she credits him for instilling the sense of discipline that carried her to academic success.

Few of the typical teen possessions can be found in the bedroom Montgomery shares with another girl – no PlayStation or Wii, not even a TV. She shared a computer with seven other kids in the cottage until last November, when she bought a refurbished laptop using her Social Security payment. A month later a financial supporter of Baptist Children’s Homes gave Montgomery a new laptop.

Montgomery could have kept the new laptop or sold it to gain some serious spending money. Instead, she immediately gave the new laptop to a schoolmate.

“That’s the kind of lady she is,” said John Wentworth, one of Montgomery’s house parents. “She’s very kind, an extremely generous person. She has a great desire to help people.”

OLD BEYOND HER YEARS

Montgomery and her sisters – Gabbie, 15, and Michelle, 14 – spent their early years in San Diego. Montgomery’s mother worked as a waitress, and her father had physical infirmities and in Montgomery’s memory never held a steady job.

And then suddenly their mother was gone. Montgomery said it was immediately apparent her father, at 58 considerably older than his wife, had no intention of assuming more parental duties, and Desireé quickly became a mother figure to her younger sisters – handling the grocery shopping and doing her sisters’ hair.

“She’s been having to take responsibility for things and be grown up since she was little,” Gabbie said. “She’s always been like a grown-up to me. She’s never really gone through her child years.”

In seventh grade, Montgomery enrolled in a college preparatory program for minority students at her middle school. (Her mother was white and her father black.) It introduced her to a possible future she hadn’t previously imagined for herself, and she determined she would become the valedictorian of her high school class and earn enough scholarships to attend college.

The family moved to Florida in 2004, just as Desireé entered high school. She began ninth grade in Ocala, and two months later the family migrated to Lakeland, where she enrolled at George Jenkins High School. The following summer, their father’s neglect reached the point the girls fled the home and Desireé called the Department of Children and Families, which placed them with a neighbor. Their father willingly surrendered custody.

Montgomery and her sisters say their first foster home soon became a source of fresh misery, and all three eventually arrived at the Lakeland campus of Florida Baptist Children’s Homes, a cluster of cottages where foster children live under the supervision of house parents. Desireé and Michelle live in adjacent rooms, with Gabbie in the next cottage.

The changes prompted Desireé’s transfer to Kathleen as a sophomore. Donna Cross, the school’s college and career facilitator, recalled Montgomery introducing herself and saying she wanted to do everything possible to graduate with honors, an act Cross called “very unusual.”

Montgomery followed through on her plan, taking several honors and advanced-placement courses to boost her grade-point average above 4.0, the assessment for straight As in standard classes.

STRENGTH TO SUCCEED

It would be easy to imagine Montgomery as a prodigy so gifted she excels without strain, but she says there are smarter people in her graduating class. She ascribes her salutatorian status to organization, solid study habits and determination.

Gabbie told of a recent episode that illustrates her sister’s habitual striving. The girls were in a Wal-Mart the day before Desireé planned to give a presentation for an economics class on her hope of someday creating a college and career resource center for foster children. She suddenly decided she wanted to create a large, architectural model of the center using Lego blocks.

“I had to convince her not to because that was too much money and too much time,” Gabbie said. “It’s hard to convince her not to do something. She’s the biggest overachiever I know. She likes to do things over the top.”

Montgomery went after college scholarships with typical verve. She was named one of just 20 Ron Brown Scholars through a national program named for the former Secretary of Commerce who died in a 1996 plane crash. The application process included a trip to Washington, where Montgomery was interviewed by Brown’s widow, Alma Brown.

Montgomery also applied to the Gates Millennium Scholars program, created by Bill Gates and available to minority students who combine academic credentials and financial need. She opened a long-awaited letter from the Gates program during a ride home with Went-worth, her house parent.

“I remember I screamed in the car, ‘Mr. John, I won!’” Montgomery said, her eyes welling at the memory. “I started crying. I was so happy because I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about anything anymore. It was such a good feeling – ahhh.”

Only 34 percent of former foster children ages 20 to 23 advanced to college, according to the DCF’s 2007 survey. Montgomery, who wanted to stay in state to be near her sisters, was accepted to the University of Florida but decided instead to attend Southeastern University in Lakeland. Cross, the guidance counselor, said she’s certain Montgomery could have gotten into an Ivy League school, and Montgomery said some people seem perplexed at her choice of Southeastern.

An ardent Christian, she said the school’s religious focus helped sway her decision. She also cited a factor most students would never have to consider: Southeastern will allow her to live on campus even during vacations, a crucial matter for a young woman with no parental home.

Academic achievement is only one part of Montgomery’s legacy. She tutors other students at school and at the children’s home, serves on a board that advises the Florida Legislature on foster-care issues and helps teach a children’s choir at her church, among many other activities.

“She’s a great inspiration, not only to her fellow classmates but to the teachers and many other lives she comes in contact with every day,” Kathleen principal Cecil McClellan said.

Montgomery recently began taking piano lessons, a Christmas gift from a benefactor. The lessons bring her full circle, reminding her of the toy piano she played as a young child, urged on by her musically inclined mother.

She says: “I could not ask for a better life.”