Kenyatta Grimmage had every reason to think the deck was stacked against him.
His father died when he was just a toddler, leaving his mother to raise him and his siblings on her own. She worked two and three jobs to pay the bills and keep the kids fed. Though she struggled with alcoholism, she loved her children and would do anything for them.
Where Grimmage grew up on the west side of Charlotte, N.C., gangs and crime flourished. Two of his older brothers got sucked into that underworld and spent time in prison. It would not have been entirely unexpected if Grimmage had followed that same path.
But seeing how hard his mom struggled for the family and how sad she got when his brothers were arrested and sent away, Grimmage couldn’t bear to disappoint her.
“It definitely had an effect on me,” says the assistant director of access initiatives and pre-college programs in the College of Charleston’s Office of Admissions. “I was a momma’s boy, and I was always trying to figure out what I could do to make my mom smile.”
He directed his energy toward church, sports and doing his best in school – things that made his mom happy.
By middle school, he was excelling in football when a sore hip sent him to the doctor’s office. Scans revealed it wasn’t a routine playing injury. For a 13-year-old boy whose life to that point hadn’t exactly been easy, learning that he had cancerous tumors all over his body could have delivered the final hope-crushing blow.
“All I knew about cancer was that it meant death,” Grimmage says of learning in 1995 that he had lymphoma.
The specter of death became all too real after he attended a summer camp for kids with cancer. One day, he’d meet a sick kid at camp, fighting the good fight, and the next day that kid would be gone. Just like that. It happened over and over: young lives cut short by an insidious disease. Grimmage wondered what he had done wrong to deserve this sentence, and he prayed every day that the nightmare would end.
But no matter how bad it got as he withered away in a hospital bed, losing weight and hair, he could always be sure that he’d awaken to the familiar and comforting face of his mother, who between jobs and caring for the rest of the family always found a way to be at his side.
“I cried on her shoulder every night,” Grimmage confided years later in a high school essay. “Trying to be strong for me, sometimes she broke down and began to cry.”
He also drew strength from the many others who surrounded and supported him. He called them his “village” – neighbors, coaches, teachers and church leaders. One member of the village was his homebound teacher, who made sure that Grimmage didn’t fall behind in school. Education would be his salvation.
After a grueling year of chemotherapy, Grimmage was told that his cancer was in remission. Soon after, his family moved from Charlotte to Pawleys Island, S.C., where he thrived at Waccamaw High School and discovered a talent for writing. He found it therapeutic to openly share his life experiences with others.
What happened next could have solidified for Grimmage that the world was conspiring against him. He could have given up and taken the path that his older brothers chose. But when his mother died during his senior year of high school, Grimmage only worked harder to please her.
After graduating from high school in 2000, he left for Orangeburg, S.C., to major in English at South Carolina State University. He became the first member of his family to earn a college degree.
After several years of working his way up in retail management, substitute teaching in schools across the Lowcountry and earning his barber’s license, Grimmage landed a position in the Upward Bound program at Trident Technical College. It quickly became clear that he had a gift for connecting with students and their families. His secret weapon was no secret at all: He just spoke from the heart and shared his own life story, rough patches and all.
In 2008, Grimmage came to the College to work as an academic counselor in its Upward Bound program. That soon put him on the radar of Debbie Counts, director for admissions for access initiatives and pre-college programs, who soon enlisted him to help recruit minority students.
“I saw in Ken a nurturing spirit,” recalls Counts. “I felt that Ken would have no problem going into rural or urban communities connecting with students because he had worked in a high school, he was the first in his family to attend college and he believes that providing access to higher education is the responsibility of all, not just a few.”
Grimmage, who last year earned a master’s degree in education from Columbia College, now travels all over South Carolina recruiting minority students to the College. Many of the young people he meets have persevered through difficult upbringings.
“I tell these students, ‘I’m from the same type of neighborhood as you and have had the same experiences you have had in life. I was you at one point.’”
Many of the prospective students ask Grimmage the same question: “Will I be supported if I attend the College?”
Supported. That’s a word Grimmage understands well. He can point to a long list of people who loved, encouraged and mentored him throughout his life and made him the man – the married father of three – he is today. At the top of that list, of course, is his mother.
This article was first published in the spring 2016 edition of the Portico campus newsletter.