By Joseph Harkins
LAWNDALE, N.C. _ Hours before her classmates were even awake, one North Carolina student was busy pushing a broom or sweeping a mop through the halls of her school. Forgive Dawn Loggins if she felt right at home. In more than a few ways, Burns High School had become her home-away-from-home.
Loggins is a straight “A” senior as well as a methodical and meticulous janitor at the northern Cleveland County high school, in Lawndale, N.C., where she began the 2011-2012 academic year homeless, abandoned by her drug-abusing parents.
“I don’t mind cleaning,” said Loggins, who dreams about someday opening a not-for-profit organization to help students -- like those herself -- overcome financial disadvantages. “If you have to wade through class (garbage) to get to your desk, you’re not going to have an environment that tackles learning.”
This fall, Loggins will be putting away her mop and bucket and leaving the North Carolina foothills for the ivory covered towers of Harvard University, where she will begin the year as a freshman biology major.
Grants and an on-campus job will help Loggins pay for her tuition, books, room and board. She said she isn't worried about taking the step from a 1,100-student school 15 miles north of Shelby, N.C., to an academic powerhouse in the shadows of Boston.
Last week, Loggins, 18, found herself walking on stage to receive her high school diploma, not long after the time she could not find her mother or stepfather when she was ready to return home from a prestigious six-week summer program, the Governor's School of North Carolina, at Meredith College in Raleigh, 200 miles east of Lawndale.
“Mom and dad were nowhere to be found,” said Loggins. “I had no idea where they were. Their phone had been cutoff.”
The worst fears of school officials, who were aware of their prized pupils’ unstable home environment, were now a reality.
Soon, teachers and others in the community pitched in, donating clothes and providing medical and dental care. Loggins picked up the janitorial job to make ends meet, arriving at school just after 5 a.m. to pick up and throw out trash, sweep between rows of desks or remove empty snuff cans from urinals. Later on, amongst the bottles of Pinesol and Clorox, she’d grab a quick bite of lunch in the custodial closet and return to her studies, which included three Advancement Placement courses and an honors class.
“What motivates me is the fact that when I was younger and look at the bad choices and the neglect and the child abuse,” said Loggins. “And, I was now going to ask myself, ‘Am I going to buck through this or am I going to cave in.’ ”
It wasn’t easy. Her childhood was at times overwhelming, having to endure the embarrassment of wearing the same dress to school for several consecutive days, going without a shower and walking with her older brother to the town with buckets to get water from the public spigots.
“We’d get water jugs and fill them up in the park and use them to flush the toilet and things like that,” she said.
Loggins also had to endure studying by candlelight and wearing an overcoat on nights when the power had been turned off at her family's home, which was always changing, meaning further adjustments to new surroundings and classmates.
“She (Loggins) came to me and said she needed something to study by,” said her boss and Burns High School custodian Junie Barrett. “I said to her, ‘OK, we’ll get you some candles.’ ”
Initially, after returning from the summer camp, Loggins stayed at friends' houses, sleeping on their couches. She later learned her parents had moved to Tennessee. With the help of a counselor at Burns and others, Loggins found a temporary home with a friend's mother, a custodian at Burns Middle School.
“When I was doing my homework, I didn’t have to worry about other things,” said Loggins. “It took my mind off of everything that was happening. I had a goal and I focused on it; and when I got it done, I felt accomplished.”
Following the suggestion of her counselor, Loggins applied at Harvard, even though she had already been admitted to the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. The acceptance notice to Harvard arrived two months ago.
“I didn’t jump up and down and I didn’t cry,” said Loggins. “But, it did get the largest reaction out of any of my acceptance letters.”
Faculty, staff and others who knew of Loggins’ plight were not as stoic.
“I kind of teared up,” said teacher Larry Gardner.
Burns High School Principal Aaron Allen, who already marvels in her achievements, said Loggins will do more than just graduate from Harvard.
“It’s the connections and the relationships that she’ll wind up making with those people that will end up driving her success to be greater and her level of contribution to be greater,” he said.