August 31, 2014

Townsend doing unto others

Kevin McCarthy

One person can make a difference. Yes, label it bromidic and mindful of a Hallmark Movie of the Week offering, but it's flesh and blood real in this case: one good human being, make that a very good individual, came into Jamie Townsend's 10-year-old life and became the catalyst to discard a bleak future for one that now has no limits.

photo of Jamie Townsend

Barriers, structural and personal, were plentiful for Townsend not that long ago. His family was poor, he attended a less-than-desirable school in the rough Oak Park section of Sacramento, and his father was absent and in prison—the ingredients of the familiar recipe for another negative statistic.

“A lot of kids fall to peer pressure but I was wanting the best for myself,” Townsend recalled. “I wanted better than smoking weed on the corner.”

But he didn't know what to do. Enter Alton Nelson.

In 2003, Nelson began the Sol Aureus College Preparatory (S.A.C. Prep), a KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) for fifth through eighth graders in California's capital. But it wasn't one of those ‘throw open the doors and the students will appear’ situations. People in the area didn't know Nelson nor that he was beginning a charter school. His pressing task was to make his plans known throughout the neighborhood in order to garner enough students to meet legal requirements. That required going door-to-door and attending social events to get his message out.

Townsend was beginning the fifth grade.

It was timing meeting opportunity.

“I was doing bad,” Townsend recalled. “I had lots of support from my family (his mother, older sister, and older brother) and my Mom wanted me to be successful but didn't know how to get me there. She was a single mother and a very hard worker. She checked our homework and did her best to stay on top of us. A lot of the my friends' parents weren't committed to the academic side, but it was important to her. It was ‘that isn't going to be us even in hard times.’“

“He [Nelson] found me at a community cookout. He talked to my Mom. It got me excited.” Townsend began attending S.A.C. Prep.

“He [Nelson, a graduate of first UCLA and then Harvard] first opened my mind to college. I never thought about it before,” Townsend said. “He watched out for me and got me motivated, dreaming about big things. He got me to take risks. I picked up on a lot of his traits.”

Nelson also coached basketball. “He gave me rides to practice and home. We have the closest of relationships, even today. He still checks in with me even though we started 11 years ago. He taught me how to tie a tie, how to shake hands.”

Something clicked. “I saw that I could get attention in a good way and it felt good. I didn't know how smart I was,” Townsend recalled.

“My family did their part to keep me focused. They knew I had a lot of potential and looked out for me. My brother protected me and kept me away from anything bad.” Townsend's brother wasn't engaged by his schooling and eventually joined the Army. Now he is attending a junior college. “He taught me the things he had to learn on his own as the oldest child.”

Townsend's sister became the first family member to graduate from college (George Washington) and will earn a Master's Degree a year from now. “She was mature beyond her years and the perfect role model,” Townsend said. “I'm competitive so it became a family competition academically.”

Five years on for Townsend, it was Sacramento Charter High School.

The quality education continued and Townsend played for Coach Derek Swafford. “He's been doing it for 20 years and is still passionate. He puts student before athlete, cares about kids and if you're not handling your business, there's no room for you on the team. He gets guys to finish college and he hangs their jerseys in the gym when they graduate.”

Townsend's foray into sports, especially basketball, was just as beneficial as his quality education.

“When I was younger I had a lot of anger issues. I was questioning why I have to live like this, with no father around and why my school is so bad. I would be mad and act out in class. I didn't learn how to control my emotions, to stay calm, until I played sports.”

“Sports helped me to learn to control what I could. I learned patience and teamwork and that helped me focus in class. Playing sports releases some of my tension.”

That participation became critical to Townsend. “If I didn't behave in class or at home, I couldn't play.” Having mostly male coaches was beneficial because of the lack of male figures in his life.

Then it was time to make the next step.

“Late in my junior year at Sacramento High, I was thinking ‘where could I go?’ I had been to Santa Cruz before but not UC Santa Cruz. I applied and got accepted. I came down and fell in love with it. The campus is beautiful and it seemed safe.”

He also received an invitation to visit from the men's basketball coach at the time; Soon he became a UCSC Banana Slug.

As a junior this past season, the 6-foot-4 Townsend started every game at center and averaged 10.8 points and 5.8 rebounds a contest, shooting 43%, 43% and 70% respectively. That production earned the team co-captain NCAA All-Independent 2nd Team honors for the second consecutive season.

Majoring in politics with a minor in education—“they go hand-in-hand”—Townsend is making plans for grad school. “Possibly UCSC; it's my first choice. I'm really close to a lot of the people in the Education Department here and I can get a credential and a master's degree in one year.” He sports a 3.2 cumulative grade point average.

His road map after that?

“I want to go back (to Sacramento) and give back what I was given, to affect as many people as I can. I was locked in a really small world before my education, so my plan is to open people's minds. Alton Nelson gave that to me and now I'm equipped to return to the neighborhood.”

Asked where he sees himself a decade from now, Townsend offered, “My goal is to open my own school, with my own curriculum. I want to create a safe haven, offering an alternative to the bad schools where too many people live.”

But there is a critical distinction: he will not be Alton Nelson but Jamie Townsend, aka the next very good person paying it forward.