Ex-homeless student earns music scholarship



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FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — As a child, Yusef Ibrahim had plenty of space to roam.

He lived in a four-bedroom house surrounded by woods in Spotsylvania County. He and his brother and three sisters picked blackberries, and it wasn't unusual for them to see deer and foxes.

Then, when he was in the eighth-grade, a relative lost a job and the family could no longer afford to rent the home with the long gravel driveway.

He and his siblings moved with their mom to the Lamplighter Motel on U.S. 1 in Thornburg. Ibrahim slept on a pullout couch with his younger brother.

With six people sharing a single motel room, privacy was hard to come by.

"There was never any time alone to think," said Ibrahim, now 19. "That was something I really liked having. It was tough being around everyone all the time with no time just to be to yourself."

And he was embarrassed to tell other students about his living situation. He called himself the "quiet kid that didn't really talk to anybody except for the people I already knew well."

The family lived in the motel room for a couple of years, moving out when Ibrahim was a 10th-grader at Massaponax High School.

He spent his junior year living in a foster home with his siblings. They moved back in with their mom —who was sharing a house with their grandmother —after that.

It would've been easy for Ibrahim to lose hope during those tumultuous years. Instead, he became a standout cellist in Massaponax High's orchestra program. He has described music as being "reliable and steady for me when nothing else could be."

He first picked up a cello in middle school after his mother and grandmother encouraged him to give it a try. The instrument felt right.

Michelle Swisher, a social worker with Spotsylvania schools, said Ibrahim was reading sheet music in the family's motel room the first time she met him.

"When you have all these adversities in life you could just say, 'I quit,'" she said. "But he has strived to do better in everything he does."

Massaponax High orchestra teacher James Forry said Ibrahim missed a lot of school when his family was living in the motel.

Ibrahim reversed course during his junior year, deciding to enroll in advanced-placement courses. He says he hit rock bottom and realized the only direction he could go was up.

Forry, a cellist himself, began giving Ibrahim free lessons after school. He even drove him to Warrenton in Fauquier County every week to practice with the Piedmont Symphony Orchestra. Forry is the group's principal cellist.

With his mentor's encouragement, Ibrahim auditioned for and was accepted into a four-week summer program at the Virginia Governor's School for the Arts.

"He had a terrible situation, and he made the best of it," said Forry, who describes Ibrahim as one of the "nicest, most polite kids in the world."

"It made you want to help him."

The teacher raves about Ibrahim's raw talent. He mastered a Haydn cello concerto in just three months, Forry said —a feat he describes as unheard of for a student that age.

Ibrahim played the piece in March, shortly before he graduated from Massaponax, during an audition for West Virginia University's music program. Forry, who graduated from WVU in 2006, traveled to Morgantown with Ibrahim and his mother for the audition.

Weeks later, the student was offered a full-tuition scholarship to WVU, where he's now a freshman majoring in cello performance.

And late last month, Ibrahim was awarded a $2,000 scholarship at a National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth conference in Kansas City, Missouri.

The trip, he said, was one of the best experiences of his life. He found that he could relate to the other students.

Ibrahim is now settling into campus life in West Virginia, where his dorm room is smaller — but not by much — than his family's old room at the Lamplighter.

His mom and four siblings now have a three-bedroom apartment, where Ibrahim will stay over summer break.

His advice for other students who find themselves in a tough spot is to "find your thing and push it to the fullest." For him, that thing was music.

"That's what's going to get you out of it," Ibrahim said. "That's what's going to help you find your potential."

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Information from: The Free Lance-Star, http://www.fredericksburg.com/

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Jeff Branscome-Star

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