WASHINGTON — Faith over fear is the simple mantra that kept Jekiya McCray going for years when she struggled to catch her breath.
Life seemed like a constant uphill climb. A mountain, she couldn't quite scale. She was bullied at school and lost loved ones lost to violence. Every day she faced new challenges.
But McCray persevered and is now the first in her family to attend college.
And when WUSA9's Impact team learned that a pandemic upended her long-awaited graduation, we sprung into action with a surprise that left her speechless.
Since McCray's graduation from D.C.'s Ballou High School would be virtual, there would be no stage to walk across for congratulating. No tassel to turn or last minute hugs to say goodbye.No photographic poses with family and friends to mark this milestone.
This was no way to punctuate all she endured to make it to this moment.
So in the spirit of Impact, our WUSA9 team of journalists assembled a dream team to pull of a day McCray would never forget.
First, we had to devise a plan to get her to return to Ballou.
Aretha McCray encouraged her daughter to get dressed for some outdoor graduation photos. Then, she put her daughter in a car, placed a blindfold around her eyes and whisked her away to this undisclosed location.
Our team had been hard at work for hours, under an oppressive sun.
Chris Jordan and his son, better known as Chrysis Entertainment, constructed a stage.
They printed a large banner with McCray's face and name, created custom masks for the occasion and rolled out a literal red carpet. They tested the audio to be ready for our special guest.
Chrysis Entertainment had been very busy in the weeks and days before COVID created a new normal. But suddenly, this in-demand production company found itself with a slew of cancelled business and time to serve in a different way. They offered to create a pop-up graduation ceremony for Jekiya. She'd stand in the light and celebrate with her closest family and friends.
McCray took some familiar steps toward the high school that nurtured her hopes and dreams. But she had no clue where she was until her mother and sister took off her blindfold.
McCray exclaimed, "Oh my God!"
She added, "I thought it was pictures and I was gonna leave!"
WUSA9's Impact team learned about McCray through an organization called Access Youth. It believes in keeping students in school and out of the juvenile justice system.
Many students who aren’t making it to class end up in a tenuous situation. Something is keeping them from learning, and that very thing could get them locked up.
For McCray, the program helped to rescue her at a vulnerable time.
They invested time and resources in this future leader and McCray found a new path. She would help others through tough times by encouraging them to do two things: keep going.
“Today it is my honor to welcome you to the Class of 2020 graduation for Jekiya McCray,” Jodi Ovca, the executive director for Access Youth, said.
McCray, still stunned by it all, wiped away tears and then offered a brief message to the small and socially distanced gathering of friends and family who believed in her.
“I really appreciate this moment right now, because I went through a lot from losing a brother in 2015, and I really appreciate everything, everybody who was there for me, every step of the way,” she said.
But with Impact, we believe in taking everything a step further, and the team at The Invisible Hand Foundation wanted to do more.
The Invisible Hand brings together a band of donors who believe in giving anonymously to lift up people and change lives in our community. They donated a MAC Book Pro and gift cards for McCray's path to higher learning.
John Pierce, with The Invisible Hand Foundation, lead McCray to his truck for yet another reveal.
“Jekiya, we wanted you to be able to equip your dorm room with a just a bit more," he said.
Pierce opened the door to his truck and revealed everything McCray needed for school: a television, computer accessories, bedding, a microwave, storage containers and gift cards.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Aretha McCray. “I’m just so proud of her, she’s really overcome a whole lot.”
Ovca said she has seen young people like McCray find their true purpose under the harshest of circumstances and sees inspiration in her.
“To be able to witness this moment, when she can’t have a real graduation, but to have this with all the important people in her life and to celebrate her accomplishments, it was just a joy to be apart of it,” she said.
A day where warm temperatures and warm hearts came together to salute a much deserving student.
“It was all worth it," Jordan said. "When you see bright young people, you know we gotta help them, we gotta help them reach,” he said.
McCray leaves for Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina just before Labor Day.
She plans to pay her life forward by majoring in social work and helping other young people achieve their dreams.
Sign up for the Get Up DC newsletter: Your forecast. Your commute. Your news.