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From homelessness to Eastern Guilford honor grad: 'I know there’s more out there for me'

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“I felt like my problems went away when I stepped into that red dress,” Kashayia Coltrane says. “I felt like I was on fire.”

Kashayia Coltrane will wear her heels Saturday afternoon.

She doesn’t want to feel like the tomboy she once was. She wants to feel like the person she now is — the senior who will walk across the stage at Greensboro’s Special Events Center around 3:30 Saturday and graduate from Eastern Guilford High.

This fall, she’ll attend East Carolina University. She can’t wait. She knows she’s ready.

She excelled at Eastern. She’ll graduate as an honor student, ranked eighth out of 343 seniors in her class, and she’ll accept her diploma like thousands of graduates from 20 Guilford County schools since Wednesday.

But Coltrane did more than just study at Eastern Guilford. She was a four-sport athlete, voted the most valuable player on her basketball team this year.

In her senior season, she averaged nearly 13 points a game and grabbed nearly 11 rebounds a game. And today, she can walk into Eastern Guilford’s empty gym, look around and hear in her head the exclamations from the courtside radio announcer.

“When in doubt, go to the ‘Trane!”

But beyond the court, Coltrane has felt heartache that she rarely shares with people. She wears it close.

On the underside of her right forearm are the four words, “With Pain Comes Strength.”

True.

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Coltrane eats freshly baked cookies, a family favorite, in this photo from early 2009. Her family had moved into an apartment after bouncing around motels and friends’ houses.

The hard years

For years, Coltrane was a statistic in Guilford County. She was homeless.

Back in 2009, when 930 students in Guilford County had no home, Coltrane was 7 and living with her single mother and two older sisters. The News & Record profiled her family in a front-page story in January. The story started this way:

“For two months last fall, the Coltrane sisters had no place to call home. They lived with friends, at a motel and briefly at a house with no stove or bathroom floor.”

Coltrane remembers those days, too. Her mom was unemployed, and her dad was in prison for selling drugs.

She went to three different elementary schools — Hunter, Sedgefield and Rankin — because her mom struggled to make ends meet. They bounced from different apartments, and Coltrane slept on couches, on floors, just any place she could find.

“I’ve lived in so many homes, it’s not even funny,” she says. “In elementary school, you don’t know what’s going on, and it feels like a big slumber party. You just know you don’t have a home. But by middle school, you know it wasn’t right. That was hard.”

Coltrane ended up at Eastern Middle — and stayed. It didn’t make it any easier. Her mom, LaToya, got pregnant.

Her mom had dropped out of high school after getting pregnant at 15. She’s now a mother to five children. Coltrane is her youngest of four girls, and when Coltrane was in middle school, her mom had a son, Zyire.

Her mom worked at various fast-food restaurants. But those jobs taxed her. She’d come home stressed out and tired, go into her bedroom and tell her youngest daughter, “I need some down time.”

But that angered Coltrane. She always took care of Zyire after school and and when her mom stayed in her bedroom. One time, Coltrane’s anger boiled over when Zyire got fussy. Her mom complained, and Coltrane shouted, “He’s not my baby!”

Ask her about that episode, and Coltrane cries.

“I’d come to school with people privileged to have two parents at home, and I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from,” she says. “But I didn’t want handouts because I wanted to earn what’s mine, and I believed God put me through this for a reason.”

For what?

“I don’t know yet,” she continues. “I have so many questions, but when I get older, I’ll find out. God will tell me why.”

School was her safe haven.

Especially Eastern Guilford. There, she blossomed.

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Eastern Guilford’s Kashayia Coltrane defends against Southeast Guilford’s Sydney Roberts.

The lifesaver

It began with sports. She played four sports during her four years at Eastern Guilford — volleyball and basketball, soccer and track. She saw her time on the court or on the field as an escape because it helped her forget what existed for her beyond the sidelines of any game.

At 5-feet-9, she played middle hitter for Eastern Guilford’s volleyball team. In her junior year, she got more than 80 blocks. She also played goalie on Eastern Guilford’s women’s soccer team.

She threw the shot put for Eastern Guilford’s track team and earned second place at the conference track meet after throwing a five-pound shot more than 33 feet.

But her real passion was basketball.

In seventh grade, she could barely dribble or hit a layup. But she played and practiced constantly, and by her senior year at Eastern Guilford, when the game was on the line, the team wanted the ball in Coltrane’s hands.

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Coltrane says she learned how to become a leader through playing sports, and that helped her succeed in the classroom.

Through sports, Coltrane became a leader. And because of school, she saw the importance of routine, structure and discipline. She did well in class, she found friends and found supporters. She also found direction.

“If I didn’t have school, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” she says. “Kids like me who lived like me got shot or sold drugs. But I saw the positive things I could do by putting my head in a book and studying. That is how I found how great things could come. They come from passion.”

That’s why she got the tattoo. Her mom has a matching one in the same place – on the underside of her right forearm.

“I’m not weak,” she says. “I’m stronger. I have knowledge to share.”

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Kashayia Coltrane will graduate June 8 from Eastern Guilford High. She leaves as a honor student, a four-sport athlete, a leader and a mentor. She now heads to college looking to major in biology and enter the medical field to help other people. “Graduation means everything,” she says. “It means a new chapter. Independence. Being on my own. I am ready. I am ready to grow for me.”

'Can you hear me?'

Coltrane’s dad is still in prison for various charges, including selling drugs. She hasn’t seen him since she was 13. She’s now 18 and says he’ll get out of prison when she’s 21.

Coltrane’s mom, though, is better. LaToya is 45, stable and works as a cashier at Food Lion. They now get along well.

“Time heals all wounds,” Coltrane says. “I wouldn’t be OK until I forgave her.”

For the past two years, Coltrane has sold chicken and biscuits at a Bojangles off Wendover Avenue. She uses the money she earns to pay for hairstyling, food and her and her mom’s phone bill. She pays for college application fees.

She’s a mentor to Zyire.

She’s also a mentor to a troubled eighth-grader at Eastern Middle who  doesn’t know her dad and whose mom isn’t a good role model, Coltrane says.

One of Coltrane’s former coaches asked her to talk to the girl.

Coltrane encouraged the girl to focus on school, not give up and channel the pain she’s feeling into something positive.

Coltrane gave herself the same advice. She remembers.

She was 14, sleeping on a pallet on the floor beside her nephew’s crib when she picked up her journal in the middle of the night. She came up with a poem she called “Help.”

The first three lines talk about pain. Four years later, Coltrane can still recite them off the top of her head.

Can somebody please help me?

Help the girl who was lost and never found?

Can you hear me?

People did.

The next chapter

Two years ago, the day before Thanksgiving, Coltrane was cooking French fries in the oven when she went to the bathroom. She came back to find the kitchen engulfed in flames. The apartment didn’t have smoke detectors, and the whole kitchen was destroyed.

“Oh, my God, I’m an idiot,” she told herself. “I don’t want to be homeless again.”

She wasn’t — for long.

The American Red Cross stepped in and got them into a hotel for at least a month. Coltrane, her mom and little brother, a kindergartner at Hunter Elementary, now live in a three-bedroom apartment.

Coltrane will head to East Carolina and study nursing. She has a reason, and it’s not because she’s interested in medicine.

“I want to give back,” she says. “So many people have helped me.”

Like Lisa Holleman, a volleyball parent and mom to Coltrane’s good friend, Lizzie. Holleman bought Coltrane’s long red dress this spring so Coltrane could go to her prom.

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ABOVE: “I felt like my problems went away when I stepped into that red dress,” says Kashayia Coltrane, who will graduate from Eastern Guilford High this afternoon. “I felt like I was on fire.” Lisa Holleman, a volleyball parent and the mother of a good friend of Coltrane’s, bought her the $120 dress so she could go to prom. Jerry Wolford and Scott Muthersbaugh/ Perfecta Visuals

“I felt like my problems went away when I stepped into that red dress,” she says. “I felt like I was on fire.”

Then there is Carol King, Eastern’s career development coordinator. Shetaught Coltrane and two of her older sisters.

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Eastern Guilford High senior Kashayia Coltrane poses with Carol King, the career development coordinator for Guilford County Schools. King taught Coltrane and two of her older sisters. “A lot of kids have a lot of trials and tribulations like Kashayia,” says King, a 25-year veteran of the school system. “But she saw school as a way to maintain her life and be her second home.”

“A lot of kids have a lot of trials and tribulations like Kashayia,” says King, a 25-year veteran of Guilford County Schools. “But she saw school as a way to maintain her life and be her second home. She’d come to school with a smile on her face, and I’ve watched her play basketball and volleyball. But I never knew anything was wrong.”

But there was. Coltrane used that pain to drive her to excel — first at Eastern, now toward ECU. And once again, she’ll have help, with a Pell Grant, a $1,500 scholarship from Masonic Lodge No. 271 and a $500 scholarship from the Guilford Enrichment Fund.

But first, she’ll has to get through Saturday afternoon.

In her heels.

“I’m a little nervous because I’m scared that I’ll fall,” she says. “But, oh my goodness, graduation is such a big deal for me that I’m looking past it. I look at that cap and gown, and I’m ready for a purple one (the school colors of ECU). I want more because I know there’s more out there for me.”

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Jeri Rowe, a former columnist at the News & Record, is the senior writer at High Point University. This content was provided through Guilford County Schools.

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