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Nefetari Smith says she was a little kid when she decided she wanted to be a psychologist. She was only 11 years old when Abe Pollin told her if she followed her dreams, he’d pay for college. Pollin told all her classmates at Seat Pleasant Elementary the same thing.
She turns 30 next month. She’s not a psychologist, at least not yet. “Life got in the way,” she says.
Smith has three kids, from ages 2 to 13. Now she’s back to chasing her fifth-grade dream. And Pollin’s still footing the bill.
“It’s a blessing,” says Smith, now a student at Bowie State and a year away from a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Paying for college is hard for most folks. Heck, even the daughter of former Skins owner Jack Kent Cooke recently dropped out of Southern Methodist University, saying she couldn’t afford the tuition—and that’s from a teenager with a multimillion-dollar trust fund and an allowance of $50,000 a year.
No one Smith knew while growing up in Seat Pleasant was counting on a trust fund. Lucky for her and dozens of her friends that Pollin, the development, sports, and entertainment mogul, came along in 1988 with a plan to do some good in P.G. County, where, 15 years earlier, he’d built Capital Centre for his Bullets and Caps.
Pollin had recently received a call from Eugene Lang, a New York megaphilanthropist who started the I Have a Dream Foundation, a group aimed at keeping kids from economically depressed areas focused on education.
“The plan was to tell kids that if they stayed in school, we’d pay for their college education,” says Pollin. “So that’s what we were going to do.”
Pollin, in turn, called his friend Melvin Cohen, an Alabama native who’d moved to D.C. in 1945. He was also a man of means: His company, District Photo, had gone from one small downtown shop to the biggest photo processing business in the entire country. Cohen wanted in.
Cohen and Pollin then went to county education officials to find out which school had the biggest need.
“The people from the county told us Seat Pleasant would be the best place for the program,” recalls Cohen. “And, from the Foundation, they said we should get a fifth-grade class. I guess it was all sort of random, but we ended up ‘adopting’ the fifth grade of Seat Pleasant Elementary.”
In late May 1988, Pollin and Cohen showed up at the school to tell the kids. Parents were also invited to the announcement, so the fifth graders sensed something was up. But neither the 55 youngsters who were about to win the college lottery nor their folks knew exactly what was going on. Only a few administrators were in on the plan.
And even when Pollin got up to break the news, it didn’t go over like he’d expected.
“I remember that moment very clearly,” says Pollin. “I was introduced; I told everybody what we were about—that if they stayed in school, we would pay for their college. And when I was done, there was complete silence.”
So the Seat Pleasant principal asked Pollin to repeat the announcement.
“When I said it again, everybody got it,” says Pollin. “Children were bursting out of the room, and parents started crying, and I started to cry, and everybody cried. That was a very emotional day.”
Tiffany Alston was among the students who stayed silent after Pollin’s initial announcement.
“I’m a kid. It really didn’t register,” she says. “But what I remember most was looking at my mother in the room and seeing her with my best friend’s mother, and they were both crying. I knew this was big.”
Alston, who was Smith’s best friend in fifth grade, says she was also sure what she wanted to be all the way back in grammar school. She wanted to be a lawyer, after seeing her family and friends in Seat Pleasant receive what she remembers as horrible treatment from county police and the courts.
Alston soon found out she wouldn’t have to wait until after high school to benefit from Pollin’s largesse. Special tutoring programs and summer school classes were made available to the fifth graders, and if they needed money for trips that might further their education, the kids were encouraged to ask the foundation for help.
And there were perks that only an arena owner could provide.
“We got to go to any concert or game we wanted, on Mr. Pollin,” she says.
Alston went on to get an undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland and a law degree from UDC’s law school. She now has her own firm.
Tracy Proctor, the current director of the I Have a Dream Foundation, has been keeping track of the adopted Seat Pleasant students since they were fifth graders. The original class of 55 adoptees went up to 59 after four kids transferred in. Of those, says Proctor, 49 graduated from high school, 39 went to a postgraduate trade school or college, and 17 received at least one college degree. So far.
Pollin and Cohen, whose initial contribution to the foundation in 1988 was $300,000, originally signed on just to cover undergraduate tuition for those kids who went to college right after high school.
As things turned out, however, the benefactors’ commitment to the students has been pretty much open-ended.
“Three kids from the class are still going to school,” says Proctor. “The sponsors are paying for them.”
When Smith decided to go to Bowie State in 2002, for example, she approached the foundation and asked if financial assistance was available. Proctor went to Pollin and was told that Smith should go for it.
Alston received scholarships from other sources to cover law school tuition. “But the foundation paid for my bar review class,” she says.
After getting an undergraduate degree from Vassar in 1998, another Seat Pleasant adoptee, Wendy Fulgueras, went to Pollin and said she wanted to be a doctor. Pollin, an alum of George Washington University and a longtime member of the GW medical school’s board of trustees, made a couple of calls.
“I know some people there,” Pollin says with a laugh.
Fulgueras got her M.D. from GW in 2005. She’s now completing her residency in Annapolis.