Helping Baltimore students realize their potential with over 800 volunteers and more than 175 community partners
Sarah Hemminger is the CEO and co-founder of Thread. Founded in 2004, Thread connects a family of volunteer and community collaborators with high school students who need support outside of the classroom. An overwhelming majority (92%) of 5-year Thread students have graduated high school, with nearly as many accepted into college and 80% graduating from a 4- or 2-year degree or certificate program. By linking members of Baltimore’s community, compelling academic success, and fostering social change, Thread seeks to curtail the cycle of poverty, crime, and lack of education for the benefit of all students.
What makes you personally invested in Thread?
SARAH HEMMINGER: I’ve had a number of key pivotal moments that have changed my life. The first was meeting my high school best friend. I grew up in Indianapolis, and on my first day of school as a freshman, I met a young man. We got in an argument because he was sitting in the teacher’s seat. t turns out that was the first of many arguments. We moved on, from where he sat to politics and religion and more interesting things. But as we became friends I would hear rumors about him, that his parents were drug dealers and drug addicts. It was a little jarring for me, because at the time he was a senior, he was a straight-A student, varsity athlete, getting ready to go to the Naval Academy. I had a huge crush and it just didn’t add up.
It took a number of months, but he eventually typed an eight-page letter on one of those old Apple 2 computers and gave it to me that explained what had happened. It turns out, years earlier, when he was in junior high, his mom was in a really bad car accident. She was temporarily paralyzed, so she couldn’t walk. She ended up losing her job. They ended up losing their house. They moved from suburban Indianapolis into public housing. She became very depressed and addicted to the painkiller Dilaudid, which spiraled out of control to where she not only became a heavy drug user but began selling drugs to support her own habit.
He basically transitioned from cornfields to crackhouse in a matter of months, and that coincided with his transition into high school. His freshman year, he had failed all of his classes and was in great danger of dropping out. At that time, a group of teachers saw what was happening and they said, “We’re not going to let this happen.” They would drive to his house, they would bring him food, they would give him rides to school, they would make sure that he had clean clothing. You know, it’s a lot easier to go to school if you have food in your stomach and you have clothes that smell good and are clean to wear. That radically changed his life and, as a result, radically changed mine. It took me a very long time, but I eventually convinced him to date me and then marry me.
Thread wasn’t founded because of that experience. It was actually founded years later. That experience made me fall in love with him, but Thread was founded because, as a grad student at Hopkins, I found myself feeling extremely blue. I’m not a person who is normally blue. I couldn’t put my finger on why, and I felt like a spoiled brat even trying to articulate to people why I was unhappy because I was in a great graduate program and I was married to someone I loved dearly. On paper, everything looked great.
It was around that time that I was just stopped at a streetlight, right on the corner of Caroline and Orleans, and for some reason I had never even noticed there was a high school there on that corner. It was like the blinders had just come off, and I saw to my left—there was Dunbar High School. I noticed then there was public housing to my right. And then, in front of me, was Hopkins.
You know, oftentimes people say, “Oh, if you think to yourself, the disparity between the two corners…” And it was like, “No.” What I actually thought was I felt more competent to form friendships with high school students. I thought there must be students in Dunbar that are just like my husband, who are incredible people with tremendous potential but are really distracted. I felt more confident to try and form relationships with them than I did my own peers at Hopkins.
That was really the a-ha. The a-ha was that what I was suffering from was isolation. I didn’t have any family in the area. I’m an introvert, so I didn’t have a whole lot of friends. It was a super competitive environment.
So, Thread was really founded not to help anyone other than myself. And that is according to how we do everything today, again going back to the idea that there are no “haves” and “have-nots.” There are just human beings, and part of the human condition is to want to be connected to and be seen by other people, because it’s in being seen by someone else that it’s reflected back to you who you are. It’s a huge part of your own ability to know yourself and to be known. That’s what we do in Thread, every day, and that’s what Thread has done for me for the last 12 years, in a profound way.
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