The subject line on Malikka Saeed's e-mail proclaimed the good news: "Malikka from
This time of year, I get dozens of e-mails pitching inspiring graduation stories. But I stopped short when I saw "Malikka."
How could I forget the young woman whose life filmmaker Ben Herold chronicled in First Person, his powerful 2008 documentary about six Philadelphia public high school seniors struggling to make it to college?
What made Herold's film so affecting was that it took an unflinching look at the overwhelming hardships the kids faced. One student wound up in jail for murder. Another was the victim of murder. Still another became pregnant and is now a mother of two. One is working for a phone company, and another, Malikka's best friend, Steve, is a chef at the Union League.
Malikka, now 23, sure wasn't exempt from her share of obstacles. But of all of her film-mates, she was the one you couldn't help but root for, because she had all of the tools. Girls High graduate. College-caliber grades. Strong family support. And a dream of becoming a nurse ever since she was 13 and spent six weeks at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia recuperating from spinal surgery to fix her scoliosis.
Her hospital stay allowed her to put "a lot of things into perspective," Malikka's mom, Charlene Butler, says. "A lot of times kids don't look at life in a serious way. From that experience, her eyes were open."
Yet even Malikka's epilogue wasn't tied in a congratulatory bow. While at Girls High, she enrolled in the Youth Scholars Program, which promised a full ride to Temple. But the program lost funding in Malikka's junior year. Then she was accepted into Drexel, but her mother couldn't afford to send her.
Her dream faded if not completely vanished, Malikka started the 2007 school year at Community College of Philadelphia. Coping with the illnesses of several family members, she fell into a downward spiral. She left school, with no plans for the future.
But then Stephanie Wroten read about Malikka's rock bottom in my April 8, 2008, column.
Wroten, a registered nurse who was outreach coordinator at Abington Memorial Hospital's Dixon School of Nursing, e-mailed me saying she could help. I put Wroten in touch with Herold, whose film, it seems, has a sequel. He took Malikka to Abington's open house at Wroten's invitation.
Just like that, Malikka was back on track.
And she stayed on track.
Which brings me to the e-mail I received from her recently: "I wanted to thank you for your interest in me, as well as invite you to my graduation. . . . It's the fairytale ending we've all been waiting for."
Hallelujah to that.
On Wednesday, Herold and Wroten's family joined Malikka and her family at her graduation from Dixon School of Nursing. As soon as she passes the state boards, Malikka will become a registered nurse.
For Herold, who still keeps in touch with his subjects, Malikka's success represents what bright and motivated teens can achieve with just a little support - from anyone willing to offer it.
"In Malikka's life, you never know when someone's going to stick," Herold says. "I was on her back constantly, cheering her on, nagging her, giving her space, and it just wasn't clicking. Then all of a sudden she met Stephanie, and something just clicked."
Wroten treated Malikka like one of her own. Not only did she advise her academically, but she also taught her how to drive and made sure she had enough money for a monthly TransPass for the 11/2-hour commute to the Willow Grove campus.
In the process, Wroten watched her grow up.
"I've seen her understand the importance of resilience. When I first met her, she'd go through a circumstance and give up. Now, she's willing to fight for what she wants."
I met Malikka for lunch earlier in the week. "I'm wearing a sundress with shells in my hair," she e-mailed.
Yes, she's still going through family problems - her grandmother and great-grandmother are fighting cancer, and her sister continues to struggle with a chronic illness - yet the Malikka who tore into her General Tso's tofu wasn't the hesitant young girl in the head wrap and glasses I remembered three years ago.
She spoke of her big plans to open a holistic birthing center. And she thanked me again for providing the hookup that changed her life.
Her advice: "Don't lose your vision."
Malikka's unlikely journey has also taught her to trust the kindness of strangers.
"Everybody God put in my life to help me," she says, "weren't the people I saw coming."