Virtual learning has become the new normal for most student athletes in the DMV. Getting acclimated and ultimately being successful in online classrooms is an individual accomplishment in and of itself; doing so while overcoming homelessness though, takes a team effort.
Kailel Baldon, who attended and played football at Ballou High School last year, has been transient, moving from home-to-home, since the age of 13 when his father was violently murdered. Currently, he is also separated from his mother and younger siblings, who live in a women’s shelter in D.C. Despite his circumstances, Baldon is determined to find a path to success.
“There’s a lot going on right now, but my education is important to me,” Baldon said. “The virtual learning is different, but it’s still school -- so I block everything out, make sure I get up on time, and pay attention in class.”
Baldon has goals of earning an athletic scholarship. Despite being undersized for a linebacker, he was named first team All-DCSAA (District of Columbia State Athletic Association) last season, an accomplishment made even more impressive because it was his first year playing varsity football. Him and his father believed his raw athleticism could pave his way to college. “I’m just special,” Baldon said. And with a good senior year on the field and in the classroom, he could turn his dreams to reality.
Baldon’s plans, though, were sidetracked when his laptop -- his only viable window to his virtual classroom -- suddenly stopped working.
“When my computer broke, I didn’t know what I was gonna do. For a minute, I saw all my plans going down the drain,” Baldon said.
Uncertain how to move forward, he reached out to former NFL cornerback and Gwynn Park High School alum Roc Carmichael who serves as a mentor to DMV youth and assists in getting them started at Life Enhancement Services, a mental health program in D.C. that provides tutoring, housing and therapy to disadvantaged youth. Carmichael, who had been impressed by Baldon’s character and ability to tackle life’s obstacles, feared that online courses without the proper tools could be too great an opposition.
“I throw free workouts and invite the community kids who, as I understand, love to play but can’t afford to attend camps or combines. I offer them the opportunity to learn at a high level, but no cost,” Carmichael said.
“This kid Kailel would always show up and be on time, do everything I asked. One day I asked him how he gets to and from the workouts and that’s when I found out about his father passing and him being on his own. He moves around a lot, so with him not being stable or having a computer, I knew virtual learning could be a challenge.”
Carmichael had a potential solution. He was aware that RH (Respect & Honor) Academy, an athletic training and personal development organization, was gifting laptops to deserving students of the DMV who were without the resources necessary to be successful in an online classroom environment. He reached out to RHA founder Aaron Campbell, who was blown away by what Baldon had already overcome at such an early age.
“Kailel has the most impactful story. It’s crazy because when you talk to him, you have no idea what he’s been through, and that struck me on an emotional level because he’s so young,” Campbell said.
“He thanked us and was really appreciative. The more understanding we got of his background, the more it warmed our hearts that we could play a part in helping him move forward.”
According to Campbell, RHA asked students to submit a video explaining both their career and academic goals and how the computer would help them continue along those respective paths. With his new laptop, Baldon has been able to get back to the pursuit of his goals.
“When I won the computer, it was like an angel had come down and answered my prayers,” Baldon said. “It was exactly what I needed. I promised my dad that I was going to make something out of myself and now I can continue doing that.”
Baldon, who has suffered the consequences of falling behind in the classroom before, didn’t want it to happen again.
“When I was in 10th grade, I was ineligible [to play sports] because of my grades,” Baldon said. “Now, I have the chance to do what I’m supposed to do in the classroom, so I can play and hopefully earn a scholarship.”
The saying, “it takes a village,” speaks to the role an entire community plays in the growth and development of a young person. Baldon expressed gratitude for the team effort engineered by Carmichael.
“I can’t thank coach [Carmichael] enough. Without him helping me win this computer, and just everything else, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” Baldon said. “He’s helping me accomplish my goals and keep my promise to my dad and I’m thankful for that.”
Baldon has moved from Washington to Maryland, where he attends Wise High School virtually. If there is a football season, he plans to play for the Pumas in 2021.
Note: This story was updated from a previous version that mistakenly referred to Roc Carmichael as Rock Cartwright.