Ronnie's mother considered him too needy. "He would ask her to help him with homework, participate in school activities and inquire as to whether he would ever see [the city's] downtown." She grew tired of his questions.

"You know, I never wanted you," Katy told her 8-year-old son. "You wouldn't be here if your father wasn't so cheap. I needed money for an abortion. [He] never gave me the money. Now, you all in my bizness. You need to leave here."

She called her father, "Big Rod," a maintenance worker at the John Holmes public housing complex where they all lived. He was 70-something and battling cancer. But, he agreed to take Ronnie, warning the child that he lacked money. "[But] I do have time and I will give you plenty of that."

Ronnie's stunning story is one of 10 told by Kevin P. Chavous in "Voices of Determination: Children that Defy the Odds."

"It was a labor of love," the former D.C. councilman told me. "I'm more proud of it than anything I've done."

During his council tenure, I was a strong Chavous critic. I also advocated against his 1998 mayoral bid. But I supported his work as chairman of the education committee; he became an architect of choice, advancing vouchers and charters while urging changes in traditional school.

Currently, he is a national reform leader, fighting for high-quality schools and educational opportunities for all children -- regardless of color or class.

Chavous got the idea for "Voices" while advocating for vouchers in Louisiana. He called dozens of school leaders around the country, asking about challenging stories. That resulted in 30 interviews; he selected 10 young people for the book, changing their names and the locations where they live.

Their stories are all true -- and heartbreaking: Several had drug-addicted parents; others lived in desolate environments that didn't nurture the human spirit let alone the intellect; still others went to schools where teachers consistently failed students but passed them along to the next grade.

"I can't believe what we do to kids," Chavous said.

The stories debunk the popular myth that some children can't achieve academic success because of their socio-economic or familial circumstances. Ronnie certainly defied that fiction.

After his grandfather's death and determined to complete high school, 14-year-old Ronnie went to live in a whore house; he graduated and won a college scholarship. One day, facing the barrel of a gun, he worried he'd die before getting his degree. Rescued by an unlikely person, Ronnie eventually graduated from Howard University; he now works as an operations manager for a transportation company.

All of the young people in "Voices of Determination" were aided by people who believed in them.

"There was somebody who invested in a child," said Chavous. "I wanted to get people to understand how much power we have to change kids' lives."

"Voices of Determination" is compelling. It should inspire more adults to invest in a child -- theirs or someone else's.

Jonetta Rose Barras can be reached at

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at